Rhode Island Republicans offer alternatives to truck tolling

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 6/16/2015

Republicans in the Rhode Island statehouse say they can find revenue for bridges on state and federal roadways without resorting to truck tolls as Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed last month.

Rhode Island’s 1,162 bridges collectively rank 50th out of 50 states in terms of condition, and 22 percent of them are considered structurally deficient.

Raimondo’s proposed budget calls for implementation of a plan called RhodeWorks. It would toll Class 7 and 8 trucks to generate $1.1 billion to pay for a 10-year bond program to fix the bridges. Raimondo’s proposed “user fees” – she doesn’t refer to them as tolls – would be collected at 17 to 22 locations, including on Interstate 95 and other federally funded highways and bridges.

Rhodeworks has drawn backlash from OOIDA, the Rhode Island Trucking Association, and some state lawmakers as well.

State Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-Coventry, is deputy minority leader in the statehouse and is a member of the House Finance Committee. She says there’s a better way to do things.

“We can do this,” Morgan told “Land Line Now” on SiriusXM.

“I’m looking for $60 million from our budget this year, and every one of the next 10 to 12 years, to provide the same amount of bridge repair dollars that we’re getting in one fell swoop from a bond,” Morgan said.

“By doing it from current expenditures right out of our budget, we will not be paying a billion dollars in interest payments to the Wall Street banks, we won’t be paying the enormous costs for gantries and gantry replacements every five to seven years. … The taxpayers, the public will be spared a lot of costs.”

Morgan says $60 million is 2 percent of the state’s revenue.

“You’d think we could put 2 percent toward our bridges,” she said. “There’s an advantage for everybody in Rhode Island in not having to pay tolls.”

Rhode Island Democrats are reportedly cold to Morgan’s idea, she said, but she says she’s encouraging the governor and others to keep an open mind.

Morgan says a trucker or trucking company burdened with $100 a day or more in tolls would have trouble convincing customers to help them absorb the cost, a reality that OOIDA has spoken about in its opposition to the widespread use of tolling.

OOIDA and the Rhode Island Trucking Association recently reached out to the Federal Highway Administration with concerns that Raimondo’s plan treads on federal rules that prohibit the conversion of toll-free roads into tolled facilities. The associations heard back from FHWA with a non-answer, of sorts.

“While the Federal Highway Administration has had some preliminary dialogue with the state concerning the RhodeWorks plan, we will need to better understand the proposal to determine how any federal requirements might apply,” FHWA Director of Innovative Program Delivery Regina McElroy stated in response.

McElroy notes that federal rules generally prohibit tolling on federally funded roads and bridges unless they fit into congressionally approved pilot programs.

The White House and some federal lawmakers want to expand the tolling pilot programs or ease restrictions to allow states more flexibility to use tolls. That will be one of the issues for highway users heading into federal highway bill debates this summer.

“Land Line Now” News Anchor Reed Black contributed to this story.

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