June 15, 2015 2:00 AM, EDT

Rhode Island May Postpone Plan to Toll Trucks on Bridges

Kenneth C. Zirkel
By Jonathan S. Reiskin, Associate News Editor

This story appears in the June 15 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Rhode Island General Assembly may postpone consideration of the governor’s controversial “RhodeWorks” infrastructure plan, which includes bridge tolls on tractor-trailers, the press secretary for the state Senate president said June 10.

The General Assembly must pass a budget before the regular legislative session adjourns at the end of June, but so far, RhodeWorks is not one of the bills under deliberation, said Greg Paré, the press secretary for Teresa Paiva Weed. A 2015 special session to look at roads and bridges is possible, though, Paré added.

Nicholas Mattiello, speaker of the state House of Representatives, also said he has several concerns he wants addressed before the package gets passed. The Rhode Island Trucking Association is working to scuttle the bridge toll plan.

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks would spend about $1 billion over 10 years to improve crumbling infrastructure. A significant funding component would be bridge tolls for tractor-trailer combination vehicles, but not cars, buses, straight trucks or motorcycles.

“The original sin, obviously, is where have the funds gone and where have they been diverted?” said RITA CEO Chris Maxwell.

Maxwell said his group has been shut out of deliberations by Raimondo’s office and that he has been scrambling for “information and clarity.” RITA has actively called for higher diesel and gasoline taxes but balks at truck-only bridge tolls.

American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves has called the RhodeWorks bridge toll plan, “Quite literally highway robbery.”

Paré said the House Finance Committee sent a budget to the House floor that does not include RhodeWorks. Budgets must originate in the state House of Representatives and then proceed to the Senate, he said.

Mattiello said RhodeWorks is not close to immediate implementation.

“I support instituting a program to repair Rhode Island’s crumbling infrastructure . . . but the [House committee] hearing left many unanswered questions,” Mattiello said.

“I am deeply concerned with the impact the tolls would have on Rhode Island-based trucking companies and in-state businesses that utilize trucking services. I am looking for more information and options to help offset the toll fees that these companies will incur. I have heard from many businesses that claim the impact will be severe and threaten their survival,” the speaker said.

Maxwell said his worry is that, even if RhodeWorks is stalled, Raimondo’s office is “now reverting to other methods, perhaps a stand-alone bill, trying to pass this at all costs.”

He urged the governor and Legislature to create a funding commission for infrastructure that would include RITA representation.

As for the bridge tolls, “This clearly cannot go forward,” Maxwell said.

While waiting for the House to act, Paré said, the Senate Finance Committee has conducted hearings on the subject. He said support for RhodeWorks is far from settled now.

“The Senate president [Paiva Weed] indicated that support remains for the idea, in concept, but there are also concerns yet to be addressed, which is why it was not included in the budget approved by the House Finance Committee [on June 9],” Paré said.

As part of changes for RhodeWorks, Mattiello said, he is willing to consider possible tax credits for in-state companies and possible discounts on registration fees.

“I am also interested in route data to help quantify the potential impact to Rhode Island companies so that options for mitigating that impact can be considered in the appropriate context. I also want to see a plan for a more transparent, public process for toll-setting and raising,” Mattiello said.