Raimondo proposes scaling back toll proposal

Median bridge toll for trucks would be about $6; cost to cross RI pegged at $40 to $50

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo on Tuesday announced significant changes to her proposal for tolling commercial trucks, less than an hour before state legislators were set to take up her transportation funding plan for the first time.

As WPRI.com first reported Tuesday morning, the changes include removing trucks classified as Class 6 and Class 7 from the categories to be tolled, limiting the tolls to Classes 8 through 13. There are 13 classifications of trucks under federal regulations.

In addition, the governor’s office said each individual commercial truck would only have to pay a toll “once per location, once per day in each direction.”

The changes come in the wake of an outcry from Rhode Island’s trucking industry about the toll proposal, which was unveiled last week as part of the governor’s $4.8-billion, 10-year “RhodeWorks” infrastructure plan. The toll revenue is supposed to cover a $700-million revenue bond, the proceeds of which would be earmarked to repair bridges.

Marie Aberger, a spokeswoman for Raimondo, told WPRI.com the administration projects the revised toll proposal “will still generate over $100 million [a year] and provide the resources necessary to support the revenue bond.”

The median toll – or “user fee,” as the administration calls it – would be about $6 per tolling location, according to Aberger. The maximum amount it would cost to cross the state would be approximately $40 to $50, she said.

The governor’s office also said Tuesday the state may place toll gantries on 17 to 22 bridges across the state; the previous estimate had been up to 20. A set list of tolling locations has not been released yet, but her aides previously said routes 95, 195, 295, 146, 6 and 10 were likely choices.

Raimondo argues the tolling proposal is fair because Rhode Island is one of only two states between Maine and Maryland that doesn’t toll commercial trucks. But the industry has criticized the structure of her plan and a lack of specifics.

The changes were announced just before a House Finance Committee hearing on RhodeWorks at the State House. The proposal is being incorporated into the final version of the state budget, which is expected to come up for a vote next week.

“We need to fix our highways and highway bridges, and if we invest now, it will cost less than if we wait,” Raimondo said in a statement Tuesday. “The RhodeWorks plan will strengthen local businesses, families, and the economy.”

The changes didn’t mollify the Rhode Island Trucking Association, which called a press conference Tuesday to expand on its opposition to the toll proposal. Class 7 commercial trucks, for example, can carry heavy amounts of cargo – and the governor has pitched her plan as a way to make the trucks causing the most damage pay up.

“I don’t want you to think the problem is solved or that we’re satisfied in any way, shape or form,” Bill Fischer, a spokesman for the trucking association, told WPRI.com after the changes were announced.

Chris Maxwell, the trucking group’s president, argued the governor should propose raising the gas tax rather than charging tolls to fund infrastructure repairs. “We can’t live with any tolling on trucks,” he told reporters. “Absolutely not.”

But Raimondo has already ruled out hiking the gas tax. “I don’t want to raise taxes on the general population to pay for it,” she said on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last Friday. “The gas tax isn’t sustainable. That’s a revenue stream that’s going down. So we have to find a reasonable, fair, sustainable funding stream, and this is something that most other states do, and it makes sense.”

Maxwell complained that representatives from the trucking group were called to the State House to meet with officials about the tolling controversy on Monday night, but were “stood up.”

While there’s little argument about the deteriorating state of Rhode Island’s roads and bridges, the RhodeWorks plan has come under criticism from other quarters, as well.

Transit advocates have questioned its focus on highways such as the 6/10 Connector over other forms of transportation, while the right-leaning R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity has argued its mass-transit components are “not a pressing need” and should be jettisoned altogether.

Grow Smart Rhode Island, an advocacy group that promotes transit-oriented development, weighed in to support RhodeWorks on Tuesday, calling it “a bold initiative to raise significant new resources to support long overdue investments in our state’s critical transportation infrastructure.”

The Federal Highway Administration's truck classification system. (credit: Texas Department of Transportation)
The Federal Highway Administration’s truck classification system. (credit: Texas Department of Transportation)

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: @tednesi

Madeline Wright and Steve Nielsen contributed to this report.

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