RI lawmakers’ bridge-repair plan has lower tolls, less borrowing

Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello speak before a press conference on the toll legislation on Jan. 28, 2016. (photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island leaders on Thursday unveiled a new version of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s bridge-repair proposal that calls for sharply less borrowing, lower tolls for trucks, and a ban on tolling passenger vehicles without voter approval.

Yet the revised plan largely keeps in place the general policy Raimondo has been advocating since last May: to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars for a short-term “surge” of bridge repairs, and generate new revenue from tolling large commercial trucks. Raimondo’s office maintains the surge will save money even after interest payments because it will head off more costly repairs down the road.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed joined Raimondo at an afternoon State House briefing to discuss the compromise legislation, which they came up with after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that all of the professional analysis leads us to the conclusion that this proposal, one, fixes our roadways, bridges and overpasses, and two, is good for our economy,” Mattiello said.

The introduction of the new legislation marks a significant step forward for the toll plan, which has been in limbo since last June, when Mattiello opted against bringing it to a vote in the House. He cited concerns about the economic impact of tolls and the level of borrowing envisioned by Raimondo.

Mattiello said he hopes the House Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the new legislation next week, arguing lawmakers have already “thoroughly vetted this.” He said he would like to see final votes on the toll plan before lawmakers take their one-week break in mid-February, partly so they can turn their attention to the governor’s budget proposal after that.

“I believe there’s overwhelming support,” Mattiello said.

The revised legislation meets a number of Mattiello’s recent demands, particularly on the size and structure of borrowing to fund bridge repairs. That was made possible in part because Congress passed a new federal highway law late last year that will provide Rhode Island with roughly $100 million in additional funding between 2016 and 2020.

Here are some of the details about the revised plan provided by Mattiello’s office.

• Tolls: The revised plan includes language to cap the maximum toll for a truck to cross Rhode Island on I-95 at $20 per trip, down from $30 under the previous version; the cap would also be codified in legislation. The median toll would be $3 rather than $3.50, and the number of gantries would be 14 rather than 17. Tolls would still be levied on trucks classified as Class 8 and above, and would be capped at one toll per gantry per day in each direction.

• Borrowing: The revised plan scraps Raimondo’s proposal for a $600-million bond backed by toll revenue; instead it calls for a $300-million GARVEE bond, which involves borrowing against future federal highway funding. This would reduce estimated total interest payments from $578 million over 30 years to $204 million over 15 years. The revised plan still includes Raimondo’s proposal to obtain $120 million by refinancing older GARVEE bonds.

• Projects: The revised plan would still result in 90% of Rhode Island’s bridges being structurally sufficient by 2025, the same goal reached under the previous version, according to estimates. It would also include full funding for the Route 6/10 connector project. The lower revenue from borrowing would be partly made up for by $100 million in new federal funding.

• Passenger Cars: The revised plan includes language that bars tolling of passenger vehicles without explicit voter approval.

• Incentives: The revised plan drops a set of incentive programs for Rhode Island-based trucking companies that were included in the last version.

Peter Alviti, director of the R.I. Department of Transportation, said the various changes will still give his agency enough revenue to do “exactly the same bridge program” that had been planned under the early version of RhodeWorks.

Opponents have pledged to continue fighting the toll proposal even as it gains steam in the General Assembly. State Rep. Jared Nunes, D-Coventry, introduced legislation this week that would create a public-private partnership for bridge repairs modeled on a proposal from the R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity, an advocacy group.

But the proposal’s most vociferous opponent – the trucking industry – released a notably conciliatory statement just after the compromise legislation was unveiled.

“Although we continue to be fundamentally opposed to tolling, we recognize this bill is very different than what the governor had proposed last year,” said Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association. “We appreciate that the speaker has continued to listen to the concerns of the trucking industry throughout this process.”

“Upon preliminary review, this latest plan reduces the fees imposed on the trucking industry compared with previous proposals,” Maxwell continued. “We continue to believe an increase to the diesel tax and truck registration fees would be a more efficient way to address this problem with far less administrative costs and risks.”

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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