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February 16, 2016 4:40 PM, EST

Rhode Island Truck-Toll Plan Still Needs FHWA Approval

Even though Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed RhodeWorks into law on Feb. 11, her trucks-only tolling plan still needs to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration before it can roll smoothly toward a projected opening of the 14 tolling gantries in 18 to 24 months.

“FHWA requested detailed information through a series of questions on the tolling aspects [of RhodeWorks],” FHWA spokeswoman Nancy Singer wrote in an e-mail. “We understand that RIDOT has been gathering the responses to our questions. We still await a response.”

RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said officials from his agency and FHWA are set to meet Feb. 17.

“There are a number of steps that would have been premature to take before the governor signed the bill,” St. Martin said. “We’re putting out bids for additional consultants to help us with environmental permitting and traffic evaluation. We had hoped this would pass last June [not long after Raimondo first proposed RhodeWorks]. We expect to reach an agreement [with the FHWA] in the spring, if not sooner.”

Rhode Island Trucking Association CEO Chris Maxwell, the most vocal opponent of RhodeWorks, said that Raimondo’s administration shouldn’t be so confident.

“I don’t think this thing is signed, sealed and delivered,” Maxwell said. “We question how the funding will be used. Are they able to move money around as they see fit from facility to facility? They’re exercising a very narrow loophole to toll bridges that are 30-yard overpasses. They’re not putting the gantries on the most efficient bridges. They’re putting them on the most-cash rich bridges. We don’t know if that’s allowable. So we think a lot of change could come to RhodeWorks once FHWA gets the big picture.”

If St. Martin, rather than Maxwell, proves correct, there are still a number of environmental reviews and traffic analyses that must be completed. RIDOT hopes to solicit bids by early fall from companies to design, build, maintain and operate the gantries in a public-private partnership with the agency.

Even if all that comes to pass, it's expected that the Rhode Island Trucking Association, with the likely support of American Trucking Associations, will sue to stop RhodeWorks.

"Once it comes to its final form, only at that point can we assess the likely damage, but I don’t expect a suit to be filed until the gantries are up and tolls are being collected,” Maxwell said.