RI Senate OKs truck toll; Mattiello on the fence

Speaker in the spotlight as upper chamber moves quickly to approve bridge-repair plan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello holds the fate of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s truck toll proposal in his hands.

The Senate approved a revised version of the plan on a 33-4 vote after a brief debate Tuesday evening. The four votes against it were cast by Mark Cote, D-Woonsocket; Mark Gee, R-East Greenwich; Nick Kettle, R-Coventry; and Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton.

Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, a Westerly Republican who served on Raimondo’s transition team, co-sponsored the legislation and voted to approve it, as did GOP Sen. Chris Ottiano of Portsmouth and independent Sen. Ed O’Neill of Lincoln. Ottiano cited the sudden 2011 closing of the Cove Bridge in his district after it was found to be dangerous.

“Ultimately, with the security of knowing the numbers have been run, my vote on this bill is going to come down to an issue of safety,” he said. “There are many errors that people may say about my votes in whatever time I may end up spending in the Senate, but one that I simply could not tolerate is if a member of any of our constituencies [suffers] a casualty or morality resulting from the atrocious conditions of our bridges.”

The toll proposal has had strong momentum all along in the upper chamber thanks in no small part to the backing of Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, a top official in the Laborers’ International Union of North America and lead sponsor of the toll bill, whose union’s members would get thousands of jobs from the bridge projects it will fund.

Now that the bill has cleared the Senate, the hot potato is in Mattiello’s lap as this year’s legislative session nears its end. But his next move remains unclear.

Raimondo’s proposal – dubbed RhodeWorks – calls for borrowing $600 million to speed up the repair and reconstruction of Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges, and paying the money back with the revenue generated from truck tolls. An additional $120 million for bridge repairs would be generated by refinancing and restructuring the state’s highway debt.

The speaker has said repeatedly he supports the overall thrust of the toll proposal, but he’s also expressed reservations about a lack of details and the impact on local companies. Those concerns were reinforced during a hearing Monday night where a House panel pressed R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti for specifics.

“Everybody seems to be moving at a very quick speed,” Mattiello told WPRI.com on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m being deliberative and doing what I think my responsibility is on behalf of the citizens. I just want to be sure that I’m satisfied it will not have an unduly negative impact on our economy before we move forward. It may not, but I’m not satisfied of that as of this moment.”

“When will I be satisfied?” he said. “I can’t predict that.”

The clock is ticking: Mattiello has said the House plans to adjourn its current session on Wednesday or Thursday of this week. He’s said the House could come back in a special session in the summer or fall to take up the proposal, but Senate leaders and the Raimondo administration have made clear they prefer to pass the bill now.

Asked whether he could be comfortable enough to pass the toll legislation before the week is over, Mattiello replied: “Anything is possible.”

“This is not a small bill,” he said. “It’s not a small initiative. I want to make sure we get it right. I’ve seen big initiatives go very badly.” He added: “The bill may not be in its final form. We have to look at it and think of the best way to move forward.”

Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said after the committee vote he remained “optimistic” the House would approve the toll legislation this week. “I think the time is now,” he told reporters. “The longer you wait, the worse conditions the roads get in. They don’t improve over time.”

Bill Fischer, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Trucking Association, reiterated its opposition to the plan Tuesday.

“Our concerns remain the same,” he said. “It was clearly evident last night before the House Finance Committee that there are many many unanswered questions related to this proposal.” Lawmakers should form a study commission on the issue rather than pass a bill now, he said.

The initial version of RhodeWorks was unveiled with much hoopla in late May, with Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed standing beside the governor for the announcement. But the proposal wound up being left out of the state budget after an outcry from local trucking companies. The revised version includes $13.5 million in tax credits and rebates specifically for truckers in an effort to mollify them.

Bill Vernon, Rhode Island state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, on Tuesday urged lawmakers to hold off on the issue until later in the year and to then pass “a comprehensive sustainable transportation funding plan that will allow everyone to pay their fair share.”

Underscoring the seriousness of the problem, RIDOT announced Tuesday the immediate closure of the Park Avenue Bridge in Cranston that takes cars over the Amtrak train tracks, due to the 109-year-old structure’s significant deterioration. “Our roads and bridges are in a deplorable state,” Ruggerio said.

While discussing the bridge closure, Raimondo reiterated her case for the RhodeWorks proposal, which her office says would reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges in Rhode Island from 23% to 10% over the next decade.

“I’ve been pounding the table, saying, we have a dangerous situation here,” she said. “We have the worst bridges in America. It’s only a matter of time before one falls apart. We have to do something.”

Mattiello countered that revenue from the proposed tolls would not directly fund the reconstruction of the Park Avenue Bridge. But the governor’s aides said the money provided by the tolls to repair other structures would free up funding to handle projects such as the Cranston one.

Sen. Lou DiPalma, who was active in the effort to get rid of the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls last year, noted the latest version of the toll legislation includes a provision that would allow the bond to be repaid early if enough revenue is available, potentially reducing the debt burden from the program. RIDOT will do an investment-grade analysis of its tolling forecasts before the bond is floated, he said.

DiPalma, D-Portsmouth, agreed with Ruggerio that the House shouldn’t wait until the fall to pass the toll bill. “I’m not sure what will change between now and then,” he said. “The problems are not getting any better.”

“The time to act was yesterday,” he said. “We’re acting now.”

George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and a supporter of the toll proposal, said Tuesday he’s still hopeful Mattiello could decide to push the legislation through this week.

“I never get discouraged. I always find hope,” he said. “As long as they’re in session there’s a shot. Little things happen at the last minute and so do big things.”

Meanwhile, Raimondo’s political opponents sought to make hay out of the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the toll proposal.

“Maybe Governor Raimondo is trying to rush her More Debt, New Tolls Plan through the General Assembly because she is under pressure to reward her strongest allies in organized labor: the building trade unions,” Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell said in a statement. “Maybe Governor Raimondo is getting worried that Speaker Nicholas Mattiello wants to have a fall session to vote on her More Debt, New Tolls Plan and a possible taxpayer giveaway to millionaires to build a ballpark?”

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

Comments are closed.