EXETER, R.I. (WPRI) — Tractor-trailers are now paying tolls in the southern part of Rhode Island, after two long-discussed toll locations on I-95 went online at midnight.
About 12 hours after Monday’s launch, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Transportation said, “The tolling systems are working perfectly.” The tolls were authorized by the General Assembly in 2015 to help fund Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s nearly $5-billion RhodeWorks infrastructure plan.
The two tolls – near exits 2 and 5 in both directions on I-95 in Exeter and Hopkinton – are the first of 14 sites approved by lawmakers to pay for fixing roads and bridges by tolling certain large commercial trucks.
RIDOT Director Peter Alviti told reporters Monday afternoon that about 3,700 tractor-trailers eligible to be tolled had gone under the gantries in the first 12 hours of the system being online. He said it was “right on target” with projections made by the DOT, which included an assumption that a small number of trucks would divert around the tolls.
The first two tolls cost $3.25 and $3.50, respectively, and will only charge trucks once per day in each direction.
The Rhode Island Trucking Association teamed up with the gubernatorial campaign of Rep. Patricia Morgan, the Republican minority leader, to decry the tolls Monday morning.
“When I’m governor, I will dismantle the tolls,” Morgan said, flanked by truck drivers in West Greenwich. “They’re coming down.”
The Raimondo campaign responded by criticizing both Morgan and her GOP rival, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.
“Under Governor Raimondo we’re finally fixing Rhode Island’s crumbling roads and bridges, putting Rhode Islanders to work fixing our infrastructure without tolling car,” the governor’s campaign said. “Representative Morgan and Mayor Fung want to take Rhode Island back to having the worst bridges in America.”
A spokesperson for Fung’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Independent candidate Joe Trillo, a former Republican state lawmaker, pointed out that the General Assembly authorized the tolls. “Any candidate for governor that tells you that they will dismantle them when elected is deceiving you,” he said in a statement.
Trillo added that if elected he would try to get the General Assembly to change the law to remove the tolls, but would continue the RhodeWorks program by taking money from elsewhere in the budget.
Rhode Island Trucking Association officials have long threatened a lawsuit over the tolls, but now say they have turned over responsibility for filing the lawsuit to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), a national trade group.
A spokesperson for the ATA has not said when a suit might be filed, but the organization did send a truck and a driver to Rhode Island for the anti-toll event Monday morning. Eyewitness News rode along in the ATA truck as driver Don Biggerstaff drove under two of the toll gantries as part of the event.
The system is all-electronic and there’s no flashing light or other indication that the toll was assessed; drivers with E-ZPass will be charged through that system, and others will receive bills based on their license plates.
Biggerstaff, who is based in North Carolina and said he rarely drives through the Northeast, acknowledged he is regularly tolled in other states, but said both trucks and passenger vehicles are assessed in those places.
“I’ve never been in a state where it was trucks only,” Biggerstaff said.
“You’re taking one class of tractor-trailer, one class of truck, to shoulder the burden of Rhode Island’s infrastructure,” said Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association.
However, Alviti cited multiple studies to argue that the tractor-trailers cause more damage to the roadways and therefore should contribute more to the cost of the repairs.
“Everyone else in passenger vehicles has been subsidizing the trucking industry in Rhode Island,” Alviti said.
The truck tolls only make up 10% of the funding source for RhodeWorks, which is also funded by federal highway dollars, the gas tax and DMV fees.
Alviti said the state’s lawyers are prepared to defend the tolls against the expected lawsuit.
RIDOT waited months after erecting the toll gantries before putting them online, allowing vendor Kapsch to test the system without actually assessing any tolls. Alviti said sensors determine whether a vehicle is eligible to be tolled, and any questionable results are reviewed in person by three separate Kapsch employees using photos and videos of the vehicles.
The contract with Kapsch allows for 0.05% error, Alviti said, and anyone who sees an incorrect toll on their E-ZPass accounts can contact the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority for a refund.
An additional 12 toll locations across the state are scheduled to go online over the next 18 months. The tolls are expected to generate $450 million in revenue over the 10-year life of the RhodeWorks program, and current law allows them to continue to collect from tractor-trailers in perpetuity after that.
Nancy Krause and Todd Wallace contributed to this report.