February 5, 2016 3:30 PM, EST

Truckers: Toll Plan Will Put Them Out of Business or Drive Them Out of R.I.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Trucking company M&D Transportation of North Kingstown has more than 40 employees and $6 million in gross revenue, all of it from customers based outside of Rhode Island, co-founder Michael Collins told state lawmakers Feb. 4.

The company used to have Rhode Island-based customers, Collins said, but they all have gone elsewhere because of the high cost of doing business.

If Rhode Island creates a network of tolls on large commercial trucks, Collins said it likely will send M&D out of the state as well.

"The 'toll' proposal will cost my business in excess of $200,000 annually and will ultimately put us out of business or force us to leave the state," Collins wrote in a pamphlet on behalf of the Rhode Island Trucking Association. "I will not let you put me out of business, so I will choose the [latter] if we have to."

What do you think of the tolls plan? Do you believe it will drive truckers out of Rhode Island?

Posted by The Providence Journal on Friday, February 5, 2016

Collins was one of a host of people in the trucking industry or connected industries who turned out to testify Feb. 3-4 on the toll-financed bridge repair plan put forward by state leaders.

While many companies and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce support the RhodeWorks borrowing plan, some testifying Feb. 4 described it as a existential threat to their businesses or factor that could drive them from Rhode Island to more hospitable climates.

Tom Byrne of TW Byrne Transport in Warwick said it could force him to relocate to Florida, where the majority of his business comes from anyway.

"Why am I being singled out?" Byrne asked while waiting in the State House hallway to testify.

Byrne pointed out that many construction company vehicles, such as dump trucks, are heavier than tractor trailers but will not be tolled.

An evening earlier, at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the same subject, Pat Hogan of turf producer Sodco, said tolls would give competitors in Connecticut and Massachusetts a major cost advantage over the southern Rhode Island turf industry.

"If I am bidding on a job in Worcester and I am 2 cents higher... this hurts us," Hogan said.

The local representative of shipping giant UPS told lawmakers that truck tolls could cause the company to route shipments away from its Warwick hub and then cut jobs there.

The impact of truck tolls on Rhode Island businesses became a major discussion point Feb. 4 as legislation to authorize tolls and a $300 million bridge repair bond speeds toward potential General Assembly approval as early as Feb. 10.

On Feb. 3, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council released a report concluding that borrowing the money necessary to fund RhodeWorks would cost less than borrowing and tolling.

Citing an economic study commissioned by the state last year, the RIPEC report said, "The economic benefits associated with the program result from increased state spending on construction. The economic impact of the tolling program by itself, however, is negative."

Senate Finance Chairman Daniel DaPonte came away from his own committee’s hourslong hearing Feb. 3 convinced that local truckers need some form of financial relief from the tolls.

“Do we need a relief component? Absolutely,’’ DaPonte said Feb. 4. “From what was testified, it seems that, as an industry, they operate on razor thin margins... The question as it relates to Rhode Island companies … is the burden going to be such that it just tips them over.’’

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said she believed the governor was hoping to address that issue in a different format after the latest version of the toll bill — unveiled last week — clears the General Assembly.

An earlier iteration of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s toll proposal had more borrowing and the prospect of higher tolls. But it also had $13.5 million in tax credits and rebates for Rhode Island-registered truckers and shipping companies — to help offset the estimated $16.7 million a year they would otherwise pay in tolls. The current proposal does not.

DaPonte and Paiva Weed said they believe the two issues — tolls and financial relief for in-state truckers — need to be kept separate to avert a potential legal challenge.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello stated the dilemma this way: “You have to treat in-state and out-of-state truckers the same. This legislation does that… We have been looking at ways to help the trucking industry … [but] that is totally separate from this bill.’’

But DaPonte said he came out of the hearing with many more questions that may not be answered before the first — and final votes — on the new tolling proposal next week. For example, he said, he has asked his staff: “If I was to start a trucking company tomorrow.... what Rhode Island-dictated costs would I incur and how do those costs stack up to Massachusetts and Connecticut?”

DaPonte is not suggesting the House and Senate hold off on voting on the toll-authorization bill next week, but he said the answers he gets to his questions may help frame the next steps the lawmakers need to take.