Image via www.dot.ri.gov
The Rhode Island General Assembly is in session only from the beginning of January to the end of June. But last summer is no distant memory for its part-time lawmakers.
Members of the House and Senate returned to Smith Hill in Providence on Jan. 5 to a full plate of unfinished business. Arguably, the least appetizing item they face is a hotly contested truck-only toll plan to fund bridge repairs.
No one in the General Assembly or the Governor’s Office-- and no doubt pretty much anyone who lives or works in the Ocean State-- disputes the deplorable conditions of its highway infrastructure.
The question, agree those on both side of the truck-tolling divide, is how to pay for the extensive repairs and improvements needed to keep the state competitive with its New England neighbors, including maintaining its stretch of the most critical north-south artery on the East Coast— I-95.
Rhode Island DOT has this to say about the state of the highways:
- “Rhode Island ranks last in the nation, 50th out of 50 states, in overall bridge condition-- about 22% of the 1,162 bridges in Rhode Island are structurally deficient.”
- “We do not have a reliable, sustainable funding source-- we're tied with one other state (Montana) as the most reliant on federal dollars to fund our infrastructure.”
- “Rhode Island lags other states along the I-95 corridor in how it finances road and bridge repairs-- we're among the few states in the Northeast that does not charge user fees to large commercial trucks.”
The RhodeWorks plan calls for fixing more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and making repairs to another 500 bridges “to prevent them from becoming deficient.” It would invest an additional $1 billion above current plans in transportation infrastructure.
Part of the funding would be derived from truck tolls, to be used to finance $500 million in repairs and replacements of aging bridges, for the state’s aging bridge infrastructure. The state expects the tolls to raise between $60 million and $100 million a year.
It should be noted that when the plan was first rolled out, national and local trucking groups raised enough of a hue and cry about the tolls hitting only commercial trucks that the proposal was amended so it would only apply to vehicles of Class 8 and above.
Language was also added that would allow RI DOT to establish a program that would limit the assessment of tolls on a single vehicle within one day. Individual large commercial vehicles would only be subject to tolls once per location, per day in each direction.
The scheme had been proposed in 2015 by Gov. Gina Raimondo (D). On Jun. 23, just before adjourning for the year, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed the bill by a 33-4 vote along party lines. While the Democrats (63-11-1) also hold the majority (63-11-1) in the House, it appears the tolling measure won’t pass that chamber quickly or easily.
Back in June, the Providence Journal reported that the bill “went flying to the Senate floor for a same-day vote, winning the unanimous approval of the Senate Finance Committee moments after the latest version” was introduced.
Remarkably on that very day, RI DOT closed a bridge in Cranston near the law office of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D). The newspaper report noted that the Senate pushed the truck-only toll bill ahead “despite repeated statements of concern by Mattiello about the potential consequences for Rhode Island businesses that rely on highway shipments.”
So much for the perceived advantage of one-party rule.
On the other hand, the Journal reported this week that Mattiello said he now expects “a final version of an infrastructure bill will most likely have a tolling provision."
However, he added that to make that happen, the Raimondo administration “has to do a lot of disclosing very, very quickly because until that is done, the House of Representatives will not take anything up."
The Speaker’s vote, of course, is not the only one that counts. Lawmakers up for reelection this year will have to ponder how much grass-roots campaigning against truck tolling— chiefly by the StopTollsRI coalition— may build public support against the proposal.
If indeed “all politics is local,” it could be argued that you can’t get more local than a broken-down bridge. Except deciding on who should pay to fix it.