Truckers driving in Rhode Island will have at least an extra few months of toll-free roads.
Originally slated to begin at the end of the year, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is pushing back the truck-only toll launch date to spend more time on the required environmental assessment study.
On Nov. 1, RIDOT released its environmental assessment for the first two truck-only toll gantries, both on Interstate 95. The assessment was published on Nov. 6 for public comment. RIDOT will host a workshop and public hearing on the assessment on Tuesday, Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. at Chariho Middle School, 455B Switch Road, Richmond.
With the public comments portion of the environmental assessment just beginning, the launch date of truck-only tolls will not meet the expected date of sometime before the end of the year. RIDOT expects that date to move next year in February or March.
Peter Alviti, RIDOT director, addressed the issue on a weekly radio segment he does on WPRO-AM.
“It’s just taking longer for us to do it,” Alviti said on the program. “The governor has instructed us to take as long as we need in order to make sure that all the systems and all of the permitting and all of the legal obligations are met to the T.”
In order for the tolls to move forward, RIDOT requires full approval of the environmental assessment, which needs a public comment period.
Christopher Maxwell, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, says the environmental assessment should not be the last hurdle in the process. However, the trucking association is pleased to see what they expected to happen all along.
“We see glaring issues that validate our concerns, but at the end day, as we said, the gantries will not be going up this year,” Maxwell told Land Line.
Even if the environmental assessment acquires full approval, Maxwell wants to see the Federal Highway Administration issue an environmental impact statement.
Per the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies are required to submit an environmental assessment before moving forward with certain plans. If an environmental assessment concludes with a finding of no significant impact, plans may move ahead. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if the environmental assessment determines that the environmental impact of a proposed plan will be significant, an environmental impact statement is prepared.
The regulatory requirements for an environmental impact statement are more detailed and rigorous than the requirements for an environmental assessment. Most assessments conclude with a finding of no significant impact. A conclusion cannot be reached until after agency and public review.
“We need to move this from an environmental assessment to a full environmental impact statement, which will assess the overall effects of a tolling system with up to possibly 33 gantries in a state that is only 46 miles long,” Maxwell said.
According to the environmental assessment, the proposed tolls were found to have no direct impact to nearly every category listed. Section 6.12.16 of the assessment addressed “Economic Impact on Trucks Assess with Tolls.” To measure the impact, RIDOT estimates a conservative price range from $3.50 to $4.50 per toll location and assumed a limit of once per facility per day, a $20 limit for border-to-border trips on I-95 from Connecticut and Massachusetts and a maximum of $40 per day.
Under these assumptions, RIDOT found “no substantial impact to drivers of a tractor or truck tractor.” The assessment also concluded that despite the additional expense, the tolls “have been formulated to balance a driver’s value of time and expenses to reduce potential diversions such that sufficient revenue is generated.”
Section 6.3.2 deals with “Impacts of Diversions on Transportation Network,” i.e. taking a different route to avoid tolls. RIDOT discovered a 9-mile stretch of state Route 3 from Woodville Alton Road in the south to state Route 102 in the north as a potential diversion route.
RIDOT calculated “the volume of truck traffic estimated to divert to any given roadway is small (ranging from 4 to 10 additional trucks at Peak Hour).” This small increase in truck traffic along Diversion Route 1 is not expected to accelerate the deterioration of these bridges, nor require the acceleration of their scheduled repairs and maintenance, according to the environmental assessment. Because of this analysis, RIDOT concluded that the tolls would have no indirect impact to local infrastructure.
To view the full assessment, click here.
The toll delay also pushes the date into an election year, which could prove to be problematic for those seeking reelection. In office since 2015, Gov. Gina Raimondo may find herself defending the truck-only tolls on the campaign trail if she plans on retaining office for a second four-year term. With public opinion split on the subject, opponents could use the tolls against her.
This is one reason why Rhode Island Trucking Association hopes this delay will go beyond February or March of next year.
“We’re not against the RhodeWorks. We’re against the tolling portion,” Maxwell said. “The trucking industry stands ready to be a great a partner with the governor if she sees it our way.”
However, Alviti told WPRO-AM that the delay has absolutely nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the agency doing its due diligence.
“We said we were going to do it two years ago,” Alviti said. “Over a two-year project, we’re missing the mark on this by two months.”
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