PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Just two months ago, R.I. Department of Transportation officials insisted the ongoing delays in completing the state’s network of truck toll gantries would pose no significant challenge to hitting their goal of providing $25 million in revenue for transportation this year.
So much for that.
Tucked away in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s newly proposed budget, submitted last week, is a 66% cut in the amount of toll revenue that RIDOT plans to use in the current 2019-20 fiscal year. The budget bill shows RIDOT now expects to spend just $8.5 million from tolls by June 30, down from $25 million.
It’s the second January in a row that the Raimondo administration has lowered the spending from truck tolling revenue significantly. Last year’s budget proposal cut the 2018-19 forecast by even more, from $45 million to just $7 million.
However, RIDOT Director Peter Alviti emphasized that unlike last year, only a portion of the 66% reduction shown in this year’s revised budget is due to the slower rollout of additional toll gantries.
The tolling initiative is a key funding source for Raimondo’s RhodeWorks infrastructure plan, a 10-year effort to do nearly $5 billion of bridge and road work.
As of last month, five of 12 planned toll gantries were in operation, only half the number RIDOT had expected under a schedule released back in May. (RIDOT has said there is no updated version of the gantry installation schedule available.)
Alviti acknowledges $6.5 million of the reduction is due to lower-than-expected tolling revenue — blamed in part on delays in procuring steel — but said the rest is because money that has been collected is not being used as quickly as first planned.
He also said an influx of additional federal money is providing more resources for RIDOT than expected.
A spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Administration added that the reduction in spending from toll revenue that was seen in last year’s budget matched the actual reduction in projected toll revenue at the time, because the program was just starting. It now carries a forward balance, budget documents show.
And Alviti has emphasized that once gantries are up and running, they have met or exceeded financial expectations. The five gantry locations took in $860,000 from about 239,000 transactions during the month of December, according to data published by RIDOT.
Separately, a RIDOT spokesperson confirmed the agency did not wind up spending the $7 million in toll money that lawmakers appropriated for use in 2018-19. She also said a budget document showing $8.3 million in the toll revenue account as of June 30 was an out-of-date preliminary figure, and the actual amount it contained at the start of this fiscal year was $7.3 million.
The administration is still banking on the success of the tolling program, which was pitched to lawmakers as an eventual source of roughly $45 million a year once fully up and running.
Raimondo’s budget proposal for 2020-21 assumes the network of gantries will provide nearly $47 million to fund RIDOT projects during the upcoming fiscal year, slightly more than the $44.3 million in toll revenue expected over the same period, budget documents show.
The revised numbers come as the state and the trucking industry continue to battle in court over the constitutionality of the toll program. The state is currently seeking to convince the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to move the dispute to the state court system, despite a ruling in the industry’s favor last month.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
This story has been revised and expanded to clarify the definition of the tolling revenue number contained in the annual appropriations bill.