Not deterred by strong opposition by industry stakeholders, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation has scored another victory in its efforts to implement truck-only tolls. The Federal Highway Administration has recently signed off on a “finding of no significant impact” for the environmental assessment.
The environmental assessment only applies to the first two gantries for all-electronic truck-only tolling, which will be on Interstate 95 in southern Rhode Island. On Nov. 1, RIDOT released the environmental assessment and made it available for comment on Nov. 6, with a public hearing on Nov. 21.
The slower-than-expected rollout of the environmental assessment delayed the expected launch date of the first two toll locations to February. RIDOT originally hoped to install the gantries by the end of 2017.
Peter Alviti, RIDOT director, addressed the issue on a weekly radio segment he does on WPRO-AM earlier this year.
“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 required full approval of the environmental assessment.
FHWA concluded that "agency and public concerns have been properly considered in the deployment of this project, and all comments have been resolved."
Assessment vs. impact statement
Earlier this year, Christopher Maxwell, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, said the environmental assessment should not be the last hurdle in the process. Maxwell wanted FHWA to 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.
According to a RIDOT news release, the finding of no significant impact indicates that the environmental assessment provides "sufficient evidence and analysis for determining that an environmental impact statement is not required," and that the FHWA "takes full responsibility for the accuracy, scope and content" of the environmental assessment.
“While we were never shocked that this egregious legislation passed through the R.I. General Assembly, it does come as quite a surprise that FHWA found no significant impact as quickly as they did given our testimony and comments submitted which cited many fatal flaws in RIDOT’s environmental assessment,” Maxwell told Land Line in a statement. “Ultimately and fortunately, neither RIDOT nor FHWA have any purview over the legality and discriminatory burden of truck-only tolling on our nation’s shared infrastructure.”
Now that RIDOT has received FHWA’s approval, the tolling contractor will be directed to continue work on final designs, including technology. Construction is slated sometime in January, followed by testing. RIDOT expects toll collection to begin in late February.
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 four 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.
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