RI leaders plan toll to fund sweeping bridge repairs

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Raimondo RhodeWorks 5-27-2015 TN_176839

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island leaders on Wednesday unveiled a massive new public-works program to repair the state’s roads and bridges, proposing to borrow $700 million and pay the money back by tolling large commercial trucks.

The state’s three most powerful politicians – Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed – held a joint press conference to announce the program, dubbed RhodeWorks, under the decaying Route 6-10 Connector in Olneyville, where they were cheered on by a crowd of construction workers.

“Our RhodeWorks proposal will not only help keep Rhode Islanders safe, but it will also grow our economy, create jobs, save over $1 billion in projected future costs, and make the state a more attractive place for businesses to invest,” Raimondo said. The two legislative leaders both indicated they expect the program to be approved in the coming weeks as they complete the state budget.

“Our roads and bridges are in deplorable condition,” Paiva Weed said.

The 10-year, $4.8-billion RhodeWorks proposal represents an ambitious – and expensive – effort by the new Raimondo administration to tackle Rhode Island’s bottom-ranked infrastructure. At 22.7%, the state has the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country, according to a recent study by the American Roads & Transportation Builders Association.

The state is already scheduled to spend about $3.7 billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years; RhodeWorks would bump that up by about 30%. It would also create thousands of jobs for workers in the building trades, whose unions were strong supporters of Raimondo’s gubernatorial campaign.

The actual text of the proposal was filed as a proposed amendment to the state budget Wednesday afternoon, a Raimondo spokeswoman said.

The proposed new toll – labeled a “user fee” by state officials – would be levied on commercial trucks classified as Class 6 through Class 13 starting as soon as mid-2016. The exact amount of the toll hasn’t been determined, officials said, but the expectation is it would generate about $100 million a year, enough to pay off the $700 million bond.

“It’s a revenue bond, so the bond will be paid back by the trucking interests that are causing damage,” Mattiello said.

Rhode Island Trucking Association President and CEO Chris Maxwell condemned the proposal almost immediately, saying in a statement that “to unfairly target one industry is simply not an equitable plan.”

“We were not built into this process and it is clear the administration has not considered the impact this will have on both the trucking industry and the price of consumer goods in Rhode Island,” Maxwell said.

Peter Alviti, the new director of the R.I. Department of Transportation, told reporters the amount of the fee will be determined based on which bridges get tolled and “the actual construction value of the bridges tolled on.” It will likely be “in the middle range of other states,” he said.

The administration said user fees charged on commercial trucks in other states along the I-95 corridor range from $6 in New Hampshire to $182 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. They said the new Rhode Island tolls would be collected on 17 to 20 bridges throughout the state, on Routes 95, 195, 295, 146, 6 and 10, and trucks would pay multiple tolls if they passed over more than one of them during one trip through Rhode Island.

“There’s an inequity in the way that we’re funding currently that through the gas tax people who drive automobiles are basically supporting the damage that’s largely done by large commercial vehicles,” Alviti said. He cited federal studies that show 99% of problems with roads and bridges “are primarily caused by heavy vehicles.”

All the funds from the new toll “will be exclusively devoted to transportation infrastructure,” according to an outline of the RhodeWorks proposal. “None of these funds will go into the General Fund.” There would be no tollbooths; the tolls would be collected automatically by electronic overhead gantries, officials said. Management of the toll may be outsourced to a private company, they said.

Alviti emphasized that the proposed RhodeWorks legislation will explicitly prohibit the agency from charging a toll on passenger vehicles, SUVs, motorcycles and small commercial trucks. Raimondo, Mattiello and Paiva Weed all insisted there is no way the toll would eventually get expanded.

“We have no intention or desire or need to toll passenger vehicles,” Raimondo said.

“It will not expand beyond 18-wheelers,” Mattiello added.

Maxwell, the trucking group’s president, argued the proposed toll would be a “double-tax” that singles out his industry, which he said already pays a fuel tax and a registration fee per foot of travel. “To our knowledge, every other state that the governor cited … that has tolls also includes passenger vehicles,” he said.

Mattiello said he attended Wednesday’s press conference to “endorse the general parameters” of Raimondo’s proposal, and argued the lack of a commercial-truck user fee in Rhode Island makes the state “an outlier” regionally. But he also expressed concern about the impact the fee could have on Rhode Island-based trucking companies.

“We don’t want to hurt Rhode Island truckers,” Mattiello said, adding that the House hopes “to find a solution” for them.

Paiva Weed was more unequivocal in her comments, declaring: “This proposal is something that Rhode Island needs right now.” Both General Assembly leaders said they expected the plan to win support among lawmakers.

Alviti said the RhodeWorks program would fix more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and make repairs to 500 more bridges to prevent them from becoming structurally deficient, saving an estimated $1 billion by avoiding more costly repairs in the future. The agency said its goal is to reach 90% structural sufficiency for the state’s bridges by 2024.

“By compressing the time it saves us from getting into the years when many of our other bridges will be failing, and saves us about $1 billion overall in the program,” Alviti said.

The $700 million generated by the toll-backed bond – which would not require voter approval – is earmarked for two projects: $400 million to complete the long-discussed reconstruction of the 6/10 Connector, and $300 million to do other bridge repairs statewide.

Raimondo aides said the $4.8 billion includes a hoped-for additional $400 million the state plans to seek from the federal government’s New Starts program to spend on public transit. Alviti said RIDOT is “reimaginging” its priorities, as well, by adding an express bus lane to the rebuilt 6/10 Connector and expanding funding for bus, rail, bike lanes and accessible sidewalks to match Rhode Islanders’ changing lifestyles.

“They want transit,” he said.

Organized labor had a large presence at the governor’s press conference, indicating the excitement in their ranks about the number of construction jobs the RhodeWorks program could create. Among the union leaders on hand were George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, and Scott Duhamel, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island Building Trades and Construction Council.

“These are lasting, lengthy projects that take months,” Duhamel told WPRI.com. “They can sustain careers.” The building trades’ membership has declined from 10,000 to 9,000 in recent years as unemployment averaged roughly 40% in the sector, he said.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who was also on hand for the press conference, told WPRI.com he didn’t know enough yet about Raimondo’s proposal to say whether it could help him pay for the city’s $100-million streetcar proposal.Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesiSusan Campbell and Tim White contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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