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May 6, 2016 10:00 AM, EDT

Truck Tolls in Rhode Island: Uncertainty Over a Relief Package

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Before they authorized a statewide network of truck tolls earlier this year, Rhode Island lawmakers told the local trucking industry that a financial relief package to help deal with the cost of the new tolls would soon follow.

They didn't say when it might happen.

With House leaders working toward their version of next year's state budget, a trucking industry relief package appears to have slid down the priority list.

"I don’t know if there will be assistance for truckers per se, but certainly in the process of doing [truck tolls] we heard from a lot of truckers," Gov. Gina Raimondo said May 3 in a lunch briefing with reporters. "They have unbelievable turnover in the industry. It is expensive to train people. We are listening to people, and if there is something we can do we are open to it."

Pressed about whether direct financial assistance still is the focus of efforts to help the industry, Raimondo said, "I am not sure."

"We are still taking a lot of feedback from the industry, and I will work with the Assembly once we get the revenue numbers to see what might make sense," she said.

In an e-mail statement, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello provided this answer to whether trucking industry relief still was a priority:

"We are considering the needs of every industry in the state as we go through the budget process and continue to work on expanding our economy," Mattiello wrote.

How lawmakers intended to help truckers has been an open question since a $13.5 million tax-credit package for the industry was cut out of early versions of Raimondo's truck-toll legislation.

The reason the package was eliminated — concern about the legality of favoring local businesses over out-of-state competitors — remains an issue for the state as it looks to implement truck tolls in the years ahead.

The Rhode Island Trucking Association has vowed to challenge the tolls in court once they begin, and Raimondo administration officials have spoken hypothetically about opening a single toll to test the legal question before committing to a full 14-gantry network.

Asked how he would construct a local industry relief package that doesn't run afoul of interstate commerce protections, Mattiello in January said "carefully" in interviews after the truck toll bill was passed.

At that time, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation estimated that the first truck tolls would not be collected for one and a half to two years, an estimate the agency stands by, even if there is a test toll, said spokesman Charles St. Martin.

Given that timeline, state leaders could make a case they have plenty of time to pass a trucker bill before the cost of tolls becomes a factor.

Still, the increasing uncertainty over a relief package is a change from January, when support for helping the industry was strong.

“Do we need a relief component? Absolutely,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DaPonte (D-East Providence) said during hearings on the toll bill. “From what was testified, it seems that, as an industry, they operate on razor thin margins."