PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – If at first you don’t succeed, toll, toll again.
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s aides offered details Wednesday about the latest version of their plan to start tolling commercial trucks in Rhode Island to pay for bridge repairs. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio introduced the revised proposal as a standalone bill on Tuesday, but House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said he may wait and call a special session this fall to take it up.
After a complicated set of changes, the governor’s team said the overall premise of the plan – dubbed “RhodeWorks” – remains the same: use borrowed money to speed up the repair and reconstruction of Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges, and pay the money back with the revenue generated from truck tolls.
The initial version of RhodeWorks, unveiled with much hoopla in late May, was rejected by Mattiello because it failed to mitigate the impact of the tolls on Rhode Island trucking companies. The revised version includes a variety of tax credits and rebates specifically for truckers in an effort to mollify them.
“This is a data-driven solution,” R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti told WPRI.com. “It’s an engineering solution that happens to have some very beneficial other effects on the economy and the job market.”
The total budget for bridge repairs in the new version of RhodeWorks is $620 million through 2025, a reduction from the original budget, which was $700 million through 2024. The funding would allow for the reconstruction of more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and the repair of more than 500 others that are at risk of also becoming structurally deficient.
The revised proposal tweaks the source of funding for RhodeWorks: only $500 million would now come from floating a toll-backed revenue bond, while the remaining $120 million would be generated by refinancing the state’s GARVEE highway debt and taking the savings up front. Raimondo aides said the refinancing saves money after adjusting for inflation.
The actual size of the toll-backed revenue bond would total $592 million, to cover $500 million for RhodeWorks plus $43 million to build the toll gantries, $39 million for a debt-service reserve and $10 million in financing costs, Raimondo aides said. Paying back the debt over the life of the 30-year bond would cost taxpayers $563 million in estimated interest payments.
The changes didn’t win over Rep. Patricia Morgan, a West Warwick Republican and leading critic of the toll proposal. “Rhode Islanders should be skeptical of this complex plan,” she said Wednesday. “Although on the surface, the original price has been decreased, this proposal is not a bargain for Rhode Islanders.”
Alviti pushed back at that, saying taxpayers would still save about $400 million by floating the bond, even after paying interest. The reason, he said: using the proceeds to do more repairs more quickly prevents significantly more bridges from becoming structurally deficient and therefore from needing to be replaced rather than just repaired.
By contrast, Alviti said, Morgan’s alternative – to find $60 million for bridge repairs in the existing budget – wouldn’t provide enough money for the faster repair plan RIDOT wants to do. “That’s how we got where we are,” he said. “That kind of thinking that got us here isn’t the kind that’s going to get us out.”
Under the revised proposal, tolls would be collected from large trucks on 17 bridges across the state using electronic gantries. The maximum toll for a trip across the state would be $30, down from $40 to $50. The median toll per bridge would be $3.50, down from $6. Total toll payments per day by any truck would be capped at $60, in addition to the previously announced cap of one toll payment per gantry in each direction per day.
The 17 toll gantries would be placed on three bridges along I-95 from the Connecticut state line to I-295; four bridges on I-195 from I-295 to the Massachusetts state line; four locations along the I-295 corridor; one location on the I-195 corridor; three locations on the Route 146 corridor; and 2 locations on the Route 6/10 corridor.
The specific toll locations haven’t been chosen yet, Alviti said.
RIDOT would pick the locations based on where they will cause the least diversion of trucks onto other routes, the cost of reconstructing the actual bridges on which they’re located, and the need to keep maximum border-to-border costs at $30 or less in each corridor, according to Alviti. The revised RhodeWorks bill requires RIDOT to hold public comment periods before changing the toll amounts.
“The final locations should be determined by a careful engineering analysis to minimize diversion and make the tolling system fair and equitable,” Alviti said.
For a truck, the cost of a route in tolls would range from a low of 45 cents a mile, between Route 6 at the Connecticut border and I-295 in Massachusetts, up to a high of $2.23 a mile, between I-95 at the Massachusetts border in Attleboro and I-195 at the Massachusetts border in Seekonk.
Only trucks classified as Class 8 and above would pay the tolls, which is unchanged from the original proposal. What has changed is the proposed creation of a new Rhode Island Trucking Tax Credit and Rebate Program to help local companies get back about 70% of the money they spend on tolls.
The Raimondo administration estimates large trucks registered in Rhode Island would pay about $16.7 million a year in tolls. The new program would offer them up to $13.5 million a year in tax credits and rebates for trucks that pay taxes in Rhode Island – even if their parent companies aren’t based in the state – to offset that.
The specifics of the offer to truckers: tax credits for their registration fees, rebates on their motor fuel and local property tax payments, and $3 million in grants for trucks that frequent T.F. Green Airport and Quonset Business Park.
Kevin Gallagher, a deputy chief of staff to Raimondo, told WPRI.com it would be unconstitutional for the state to simply allow Rhode Island trucks to pay a lower toll than out-of-state trucks, but the administration expects no legal problem from offering them tax credits and rebates separately to accomplish the same purpose.
Gallagher said he briefed members of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, a lobbying group, on Tuesday about the revised proposal. But Chris Maxwell, the association’s president, continued to criticize the toll concept in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Without specific toll locations and specific costs per location it is impossible to evaluate the fiscal impact of the toll plan to our industry,” Maxwell said.
The Senate Finance Committee will take up the revised toll plan at a hearing Thursday afternoon.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi