Fight over truck tolls revs up at the State House

WPRI/Ted Nesi

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A parade of supporters and opponents appeared before lawmakers Wednesday to testify on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s truck toll proposal, which Democratic legislative leaders have signaled could win final approval this month.

The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing lasting seven hours to discuss the revised version of the proposal, dubbed RhodeWorks, which would toll large commercial trucks and borrow $300 million to fund a “surge” of bridge repairs over the next 10 years. The room was initially packed, though the crowd thinned out somewhat as the hearing continued.

An analysis of the proposal released by the Senate Fiscal Office estimated it would generate net additional revenue for the R.I. Department of Transportation totaling $543 million over its first five years and $789 million over its first 10 years. But an independent study released Wednesday raised new questions about the details of the proposal.

The House Finance Committee is scheduled to hold its own hearing on Thursday to review the toll proposal, which now enjoys the strong support of one-time critic Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. He and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed have signaled they want final votes on the plan to happen soon.

There appeared to be few surprises during the initial hours of Wednesday’s Senate testimony, with supporters of the proposal arguing it represents a long-delayed new approach to improving the state’s crumbling infrastructure, and critics expressing strong opposition to levying tolls on the trucking industry.

Among the supporters who spoke in favor of the bill were representatives of construction companies and unions – who packed the State House with building-trades workers Wednesday to lobby for the bill – as well as the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and AAA. Opponents included officials from the Rhode Island Trucking Association, the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association and the Rhode Island Farm Bureau.

“This could be one of the most critical pieces of legislation that this body has dealt with in many, many years,” George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, argued as he highlighted the number of jobs RhodeWorks would create.

“It creates 6,000 jobs over the next 10 years in an industry that’s been decimated since the Great Recession,” added Michael Sabitoni of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council. “This will be a big kickstart and solve a bunch of problems.”

The Farm Bureau’s Wayne Salisbury, on the other hand, warned of negative consequences for the Rhode Island economy, which relies on trucks for distribution, and insisted that no one disagrees about the need to fix bridges. “It’s not whether they need work – it’s how we’re going to go about financing it,” he said.

Chris Maxwell of the Rhode Island Trucking Association said negative impacts will be felt by small businesses, claiming that truckers will avoid the toll gantries and the state may not take in the $45 million in toll revenue as projected.

“When that revenue shortfall is realized because the trucks went around, unfortunately, the burden of RhodeWorks will fall right on the shoulders of Rhode Island businesses,” said Maxwell.

Cumberland Farms submitted a formal letter to the committee in opposition to the proposal, saying it’s “inequitable on its face, unwarranted by the facts, and misguided as a matter of public policy.”

The convenience store chain said it supports “fair solutions to infrastructure challenges,” noting that it already compensates Rhode Island for the use of its roads and bridges by paying into the State Motor Fuel Excise Tax, the International Fuel Tax Agreement, state oversize/overweight permit fees and ancillary taxes. (Read the full letter from Cumberland Farms below.)

A spokesperson for UPS said the delivery company may shift jobs from its Warwick location if the plan is enacted. The move would not, however, affect package delivery times in the state, according to the spokesperson.

RIDOT Director Peter Alviti began the hearing with a presentation renewing his argument for RhodeWorks, which he said will save money over the long term by heading off more costly repairs in the future. “Changing the oil is far less expensive than changing the engine,” he said.

Alviti said large trucks contribute to 70% of damage to roads and bridges but only contribute 19% of highway funds. There will be no tollbooths constructed, he explained, but rather 14 electronic gantries that will register an E-ZPass at regular highway speeds.

“There will be no need to stop or even slow down when going under the tolling gantries,” he explained.

Alviti said RIDOT would begin implementing RhodeWorks the day after Governor Raimondo signs it into law by moving to hire the first contractors needed to carry out the work. He also said a law firm hired by the agency has affirmed the constitutionality of the truck tolls, despite skepticism from Sen. John Pagliarini, R-Tiverton.

Dozens testified before Senate lawmakers, including local trucker Mike Collins, who said he’d rather pay a higher diesel tax than the proposed tolls.

“Somebody needs to tell me the last time there was ever an industry in the state of Rhode Island that stepped forward and said, ‘tax me more,'” said Collins.

Among the lawmakers on hand, there was a mix of opinions.

Sen. Lou DiPalma, D-Portsmouth, strongly supported the proposal. “I think it’s easy, and what we’ve done over the years, to say let’s kick the can down the road,” he said, adding: “It’s a hard thing to do but it’s the right thing to do.”

But Sen. Lou Raptakis, D-Coventry, suggested the General Assembly is moving too quickly on the plan and proposed that lawmakers should “call timeout” and organize a study commission to examine the issue further.

Pagliarini, the newest member of the Senate after he won office in a special election last month, emerged as a tough questioner on behalf of toll opponents, repeatedly pressing witnesses who support the bill about its downsides.

Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton, said she’s been bombarded with calls and emails opposing the toll plan. “My stomach is sick listening to the proposal,” she said.

Morgan also questioned the Raimondo administration’s assertion that trucks can be blocked from trying to avoid the tolls by using local roads. “This isn’t Soviet Russia,” she said. “You’re going to stop trucks from getting off the highway? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Also on Wednesday, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin sent a letter to lawmakers suggesting that they amend the section of the legislation that bars tolls on passenger vehicles unless they are explicitly approved in a public referendum. Kilmartin suggested the bill should also require a two-thirds supermajority of legislators to put tolls on cars.

Below is the full letter from Cumberland Farms in opposition of the RhodeWorks proposal. (Click to enlarge)

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