RI lawmakers hold marathon hearings on controversial truck tolls plan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP/WPRI) — A plan to charge big-rig trucks using Rhode Island highways is barreling through the state’s General Assembly as top lawmakers push to fast-track the bill that failed last year.

The House Finance Committee heard more public comments on Thursday, after an identical bill was introduced in the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday. The new plan includes 14 tolling locations for large commercial trucks in order to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Local and out-of-state truckers oppose the truck-only tolls that Gov. Gina Raimondo plans to use for her 10-year plan to repair deteriorating infrastructure.

RIDOT Director Peter Alviti responded to those opponents, telling Eyewitness News he doesn’t think tolls will hurt trucking companies.

“Everywhere else along the eastern seaboard, trucking companies are paying tolls,” Alviti said Thursday. “Rhode Island is one of the only states that doesn’t charge them.”

Connecticut also doesn’t have tolls, but is considering implementing them in that state.

Many people have expressed concern that once the toll gantries go up, it would be easy for officials to start tolling cars. Alviti addressed that Thursday.

“We have no intention of tolling cars,” he said to the House Finance Committee. “Not now, not ever.”

The new version of the bill requires a public, statewide referendum if the state ever considers tolling cars in the future.

“They would decide themselves if tolls were ever to be imposed on cars,” Alviti said.

But several lawmakers have pointed out that future legislatures could repeal that portion of the law. They’ve introduced resolutions for a constitutional amendment that would cement a ban on tolls into the Rhode Island Constitution.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to change the state’s Constitution, and proposed his own plan in a letter to lawmakers Wednesday. He talked about the proposal to Eyewitness News on Thursday.

“I thought a great means of protecting the public was by doing a two-thirds, supermajority vote if a future legislature wanted to back out on the deal that’s being presented to the public now,” Kilmartin said. Under his proposed plan, lawmakers wouldn’t be able to repeal the ban on car tolls with a simple majority in the future.

Unions and construction trade organizations that will benefit from the surge of public works contracts support the plan, which is slated to create 6,000 jobs.

“Tolls, I think, are reasonable,” said Greg Mancini with Build Rhode Island, testifying in favor of the bill. He said the construction workers his group represents are going out of the state for work and would be able to get in-state jobs under the plan.

Trucking companies have said they will just go around the tolls, but Alviti said he believes that would cost truck drivers more.

“To divert around a $3 toll is going to cost them more in gas and time than paying the $3 toll itself,” he said.

Plus, the state plans to put “No Thru Trucks” signs up at all diversion sites, enforcing toll violators with fines that will go towards the same fund as the tolls.

The plan is projected to make $45 million a year in revenue for the Governor’s RhodeWorks program.

Thursday’s hearing was expected to go late into the night.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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