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March 15, 2016 3:00 PM, EDT

Truck Tolling Supported at IBTTA Session

WASHINGTON — Rhode Island recently approved a trucks-only tolling law. Connecticut, which hasn’t had a toll in 27 years, and Wisconsin, which has never had tolls, likely will add general-use tolls during the next decade and wouldn’t rule out following Rhode Island’s truck-only example.

Among the four states represented at a March 15 panel of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association’s Transportation Policy and Finance Summit, only Washington — which has been adding to its sprinkling of tolls of late — doesn’t expect to turn trucks into targets any time soon. 

“There are a lot of states interested in what Rhode Island is doing,” moderator Christopher Mwalwanda of CDM Smith said in introducing the panel.

Peter Garino, deputy director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, cited studies by the General Accounting Office and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that said an average tractor-trailer does 9,600 times more damage to roads than the average car. Garino added that trucks cause 70% of the damage to Rhode Island’s roads while contributing just 19% of the funding to their care through fees and diesel taxes.

Rhode Island’s truck-only toll plan, coined "RhodeWorks," only needs approval from the Federal Highway Administration, with whom the state is negotiating a memorandum of understanding, to go full-speed ahead.

The Rhode Island plan has been opposed by the Rhode Island Trucking Association, which may mount a legal challenge, likely with the backing of American Trucking Associations.

“Getting ATA to be open to [tolling] remains a tremendous challenge,” said former Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Emil Frankel, who serves on current Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Transportation Finance Panel.

“The [trucking industry] has a vested interest in keeping this infrastructure in good shape,” said Garino, who claimed the support of RhodeWorks from drivers and the Teamsters. “If we have to weight-restrict bridges … cars aren’t affected. It’s the trucks that are affected. The fact that they’re going over bridges and paying fines to the tune of $3,000 to do so tells you the value of the infrastructure to the industry.”

Garino said RIDOT didn’t start out planning to toll only trucks but that component developed during “the legislative process” as Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration tried to address the state’s bridges, of which a national-worst 20% are structurally deficient. Garino said a national-low 45% of transportation funding in Rhode Island is generated within the state but that accelerating repair and replacement of the bridges would save Rhode Island an estimated $950 million.

Garino noted that tolls, which are capped at $20 a day on I-95 and $40 a day statewide, will account for about 10% of his department’s revenue once the plan is fully implemented but termed it “the critical 10% we need to fund the rest of [RhodeWorks].”

Casey Newman from Wisconsin’s DOT said that while there was “little appetite” for raising fees during an election year, his department is studying the possibility of implementing tolls on the state’s 875 miles of interstate highway.

Frankel termed the opposition to tolling in Connecticut “almost pathological,” while predicting that it will eventually be overcome.

Ben Bakkenta, program manager for the Puget Sound Regional Council which encompasses metropolitan Seattle, said tolls are an attractive option because “traditional funding sources [taxes and fees] are no longer capable of maintaining or improving mobility for a growing region.”