RI lawmakers set to OK tolls this week

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island lawmakers on Tuesday took another major step toward approving new tolls on big-rig trucks to pay for bridge repairs, as critics of the proposal continued to rally opposition and threaten political retribution at the polls this fall.

The House and Senate finance committees voted in quick succession to approve the legislation on Tuesday afternoon. Spokesmen said final votes will take place when the full House meets Wednesday at 4 p.m. and when the full Senate meets Thursday at 2 p.m.

Democratic legislative leaders are aiming to send the much-discussed bill to Gov. Gina Raimondo for her signature by the end of this week.

House Finance approval came on a 14-4 vote after a brief hearing that lasted roughly 10 minutes and was dominated by a dramatic confrontation between Chairman Ray Gallison, D-Bristol, and Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, over her right to ask further questions.

“The people of my district are paying for this microphone and I have a right to ask questions,” Morgan declared before Gallison cut her off. She told reporters she was seeing more information about, among other matters, the tolling of truck combinations, any legal opinions offered on the bill, and additional traffic studies.

“This is 38 Studios times 10 if we get it wrong,” Morgan said.

Later in the day House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello fired back at Morgan, who has long been one of his most vocal opponents, saying he thinks she’s had enough time over the last 10 months to gather information. “For her to suggest that we need more time is simply a delay tactic to serve her own political agenda,” he said.

Senate Finance held its own brief meeting soon after its House counterpart and approved the bill on an 8-2 vote after just a few minutes of discussion. Toll opponent Sen. John Pagliarini, R-Tiverton, made a thwarted effort to clear the room, arguing the number of people present was breaking the fire code, but committee Democrats quickly shot him down.

The proposed legislation, dubbed RhodeWorks, would fund a multiyear surge of bridge repairs through two mechanisms: borrowing $300 million against future federal highway funding, as well as refinancing old borrowing to yield an additional $120 million; and imposing a new toll on large commercial trucks.

The Senate Fiscal Office estimates the two initiatives would generate a net total of $543 million in new revenue for the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) between 2016 and 2020. The Raimondo administration says the plan will save money over the long term by avoiding more costly repairs down the road.

The version of the bill approved by the committee Tuesday was slightly amended from what was unveiled last month, with the addition of a specific definition of “passenger vehicles” and some further oversight requirements. One of those changes moves the auditing of RIDOT’s spending from in-house staffers out to the R.I. Department of Administration’s Bureau of Audits.

Rep. Ray Hull, the lone Democrat on either committee to vote against the legislation, offered a number of reasons for his opposition, including the bill’s reliance on a single industry for toll revenue, the fact that details about the legislation were still emerging on Tuesday, and a study released last week that indicated scrapping tolls and borrowing more would cost less.

“Given the lack of time taken to consider these and other concerns, I cannot in good conscience lend my support to this proposal,” Hull, D-Providence, said in a statement. “The simple fact of the matter is that when we rush to address problems or enact new policies in Rhode Island, we don’t get good public policy outcomes.”

Critics led by the trucking industry have charged the tolls would inflict unnecessary economic damage on Rhode Island’s economy. A coalition called StopTollsRI said one of its partner groups, The Gaspee Project, is planning to form a political action committee that will raise funds to target incumbent lawmakers in this fall’s elections if they back the toll plan.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning Raimondo, Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed spoke at a news conference in favor of RhodeWorks at the offices of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, which supports the bill. Also on hand were Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee and various officials representing construction businesses and unions.

In recent days the discount retailer Ocean State Job Lot has becomes perhaps the most vocal business critic of the plan, after warning over the weekend it was putting a proposed $50-million expansion on hold due to the toll proposal. But company officials have said they will carry out the project if tolls are scrapped or if the state provides offsetting incentives.

Raimondo reiterated on Tuesday that state leaders are working on crafting a separate piece of legislation that would provide breaks to Rhode Island trucking companies. A previous version of the toll bill included such a package of incentives, but Mattiello said that was scrapped in this year’s final version due to legal concerns.

“Obviously, we are sensitive to business needs,” Raimondo said. “Everything I’ve done as governor has been to improve our business climate, to make it easier to do business. So we’re going to watch it.” She added: “Almost every state from Maryland to Maine has tolls – much higher truck tolls than what we are considering – and most of those economies are thriving.”

Job Lot CEO Marc Perlman, speaking to reporters after the Senate Finance vote, continued his criticism of the proposal, while going out of his way to express sympathy for the fact that Raimondo and Mattiello “inherited” the problem of crumbling roads and bridges. He reiterated the need for state leaders to enact some sort of offsetting incentives for companies like his.

“Believe these truckers when they say this is going to be very, very challenging for them to compete in this marketplace,” Perlman said.

Also attending the Chamber of Commerce event was Arnie Bromberg, owner of the iconic Rhode Island retailer Benny’s. Bromberg said he is concerned about the impact tolls will have on his business but also about the condition of the state’s bridges, and said he wants to gather more information before taking a position on the bill.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, a Democrat and Raimondo ally, said Tuesday he supports the final version of the RhodeWorks legislation, which his office has been involved in vetting due to its borrowing components.

“This is a financially responsible plan that balances the urgent need to repair our infrastructure with the responsibility to never borrow beyond our means,” Magaziner spokesman David Ortiz said in an email. “By shifting a portion of the cost to out-of-state trucks and utilizing newly authorized federal funding, RhodeWorks will put thousands to work repairing our bridges without excessive borrowing or broad-based tax increases.”

Representatives of the American Trucking Association and its Rhode Island counterpart said if the toll bill passes as expected, lawsuits will likely be filed challenging its constitutionality. They declined to give a timeline for taking action, saying they needed to see the final outcome of this week’s voting first.How the House Finance Committee voted on truck tolls

Yes: Reps. Ray Gallison, Eileen Naughton, John Carnveale, Marvin Abney, Gregg Amore, Jean Philippe Barros, Joy Hearn, Robert Jacquard, Kenneth Marshall, Deborah Ruggiero, Pat Serpa, Scott Slater, Teresa Tanzi, Carlos Tobon.

No: Reps. Anthony Giarrusso, Ray Hull, Patricia Morgan, Daniel Reilly.

Absent: Rep. Jan Malik.How the Senate Finance Committee voted on truck tolls

Yes: Sens. Dan DaPonte, Lou DiPalma, Jamie Doyle, Walter Felag, Maryellen Goodwin, Ryan Pearson, Juan Pichardo, Dominick Ruggerio.

No: Sens. Ed O’Neill, John Pagliarini.

Absent: Sen. Susan Sosnowski.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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