Truckers roll out alternative to Raimondo toll plan

Industry suggests diesel tax, registration fee hikes; Mattiello, Raimondo met Tuesday

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s trucking industry on Wednesday proposed hiking the diesel tax and increasing their registration fees as they battle increasing momentum for Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal to fund bridge repairs with truck tolls.

“We have always stated we want to be part of the solution, but tolls are not the answer,” Christopher Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, said in a statement.

Maxwell said the truckers’ proposal would bring in $220 million in revenue over its first four fiscal years and $25.9 million annually thereafter. However, those estimates include the savings from axing a new $13.5 million system of tax credits Raimondo has proposed to offset the cost of tolling on local companies.

The Trucking Association appears to be on the defensive now that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has begun to publicly warm up to Raimondo’s toll proposal, dubbed RhodeWorks. State House sources say top lawmakers are eyeing the possibility of acting on the plan early next year.

Raimondo and Mattiello met Tuesday evening to discuss a number of issues, including the toll proposal. “We had a very productive discussion about plans to move forward in a meaningful way to improve our infrastructure while protecting the financial interests of the state,” Mattiello said through a spokesman.

Along with the absence of tolls, two key differences between the truckers’ plan and the governor’s are the proposed tax and fee changes.

The trucking industry proposes increasing Rhode Island’s diesel tax from 34 cents to 52 cents, which the group says would generate $10.8 million a year. Currently, Massachusetts’ diesel tax is 24 cents and Connecticut’s diesel tax is 55 cents.

The association also proposes increasing Rhode Island’s annual truck registration fee from $1,056 to $1,556, which the group says would generate $1.6 million a year. The truckers said Rhode Island currently has the lowest truck registration fee in New England. In Massachusetts, the fee is $1,920, they said.

The largest source of revenue for the Trucking Association’s plan, however, is also contained in the governor’s plan: a refinancing of Rhode Island’s GARVEE highway bonds that would yield $121 million over four years.

The association suggested the state could float a bond backed by future revenue from some or all of their proposals in order to fund bridge repairs now, including the $800-million replacement of the Route 6/10 Connector, the biggest component of RhodeWorks’ bridge program.

Mattiello offered a cautious reaction to the industry’s proposal. “I have always been concerned about the truckers’ interests and I will certainly assess their suggestions,” he said. “The more options that are available to us, the better the ultimate outcome will be.”

But Raimondo’s spokeswoman, Marie Aberger, quickly took issue with the truckers’ plan, saying it wouldn’t generate enough revenue to deal with the bridge problem and that it would shift too much of the burden onto local businesses.

“Shifting the burden from predominately out-of-state trucks, to predominately Rhode Island trucks might serve the policy interests of the national trucking lobby – who oppose user fees no matter what – but that doesn’t mean it’s good for Rhode Island,” Aberger said.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, whose chamber already gave overwhelming approval to RhodeWorks back in June, said in a statement: “The Senate welcomes the input of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, and we will review their proposal.”

Maxwell reiterated his request that the Raimondo administration should release a list of specific tolling locations that the public can inspect. “The administration knows the locations that they are seeking,” he said. “These locations should be shared with the public.”

Maxwell signaled the Trucking Association may sue the state if the toll proposal is approved by lawmakers. “The inequity of only tolling trucks is just one issue,” he said. “There are also inequities in carving out certain classifications of trucks and carving out tax credits for certain elements of the trucking industry.”

“No state in the country is initiating a toll system exclusively on trucks,” he added.

Maxwell also disputed projections released by the Raimondo administration that say the daily number of trucks averages 11,532 on I-195 but only 2,966 between I-95 and I-295 at the Massachusetts state line. He cited a separate analysis done by the American Transportation Research Institute, an industry-backed nonprofit, that used GPS data to show significantly more trucks travel on I-95 than I-195.

“If these projections are off, and we believe they are, the governor’s revenue projections are off by millions of dollars,” Maxwell said.

Raimondo has proposed floating a $600-million bond backed by revenue from truck tolls to fund a quick “surge” of bridge repairs in the next few years. On last week’s Newsmakers, she ruled out the possibility regular tax revenue would be needed to pay off the bond if toll revenue isn’t enough.

“If that were to happen, you’d have to increase the toll,” she said. “Taxpayers will never be on the hook for this bond.”

Separately on Wednesday, House Republicans held a press conference to rally opposition to RhodeWorks. They are pushing their own alternative proposal, which would also skip tolls and instead redirect existing state funds to bridge repairs.

The Republicans have dubbed the governor’s proposal “RhodeTolls,” and they took particularly issue with the findings of a generally positive economic-impact study the administration released last week. Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, said the study was full of “holes,” and released a list of 13 questions the House Republican Policy Group has about the proposal.

“We can fix all of our bridges with existing revenue,” Morgan said. “We do not have to go down the road of tolls and hurt our economy even more.”

Critics of RhodeWorks also continue to warn about the possibility that tolls could eventually be levied on passenger cars – something Raimondo and Mattiello have repeatedly ruled out.

Maxwell emphasized that the Trucking Association’s plan would not require the state to construct toll gantries, which he said would cost $43 million. “Our plan also guarantees cars will never be tolled by future administrations because the infrastructure will never be constructed,” he said.

Rep. Blake Filippi, I-New Shoreham, dismissed the comments on passenger cars made by the governor and the speaker. “Frankly, those assurances can’t be trusted,” he said. “I’m in government and I fear that passenger cars will be tolled, so I can only imagine what the people out there are thinking as well.”

Aberger said the governor’s office is standing behind RhodeWorks, but is “pleased” the debate has led others to start offering solutions to the problem.

“We’ve neglected our roads and bridges for too long, and we’re thrilled that the governor’s call to end the politics of procrastination has spurred more engagement from so many groups,” she said.

A poll released last month by Bryant University showed 76% of Rhode Islanders think state and local governments aren’t doing enough to maintain roads and bridges, and indicated just over half – 53% – support the governor’s toll proposal.

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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