RIDOT undecided on how to pay for $38M truck-toll gantries

Three firms bid to oversee design, construction, implementation of RhodeWorks tolls

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Transportation expects its new toll gantries will collect $45 million a year from trucks once they’re up and running. But first the agency has to figure out how to pay for the gantries themselves.

Construction of the new toll gantries – electronic overhead collection systems used instead of tollbooths – at 14 locations around the state is expected to cost $38 million, according to a Senate Fiscal Office analysis of RhodeWorks, the transportation-repair plan toll revenue will help support.

The Raimondo administration originally planned to fund gantry construction with some of the proceeds from a $600-million bond backed by future toll revenue. But the final version of the toll plan enacted last month replaced the toll-backed revenue bond with a different financing mechanism, a $300-million GARVEE bond backed by future federal highway grants.

In an email, RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin confirmed some of the GARVEE proceeds could be used to build the gantries, but also said the agency will consider using first-year tolling revenue or “other program funds that could be reimbursed by tolling revenue.”

“RIDOT is in the process of engaging the services of a toll facility consultant,” St. Martin said. “The company will serve as the department’s ‘owner’s representative’ through the process of design, building and initial operation of the gantries.”

Three companies are vying to be hired as RIDOT’s toll facility consultant: CDM Smith, Gannett Fleming, and Jacobs Engineering Group. St. Martin said the agency expects to choose the winning bidder within six to eight weeks.

RIDOT has previously said it hopes to begin construction on the toll gantries early in 2017, with the first location starting to actually collect revenue by the end of the year.

However, Republican lawmakers have expressed concern that the state could sink $38 million into construction of the gantries only to have the truck-only tolling regime thrown out in court as unconstitutional. Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, has submitted a resolution calling on Gov. Gina Raimondo to seek an advisory opinion about the issue from the R.I. Supreme Court.

“As lawmakers elected to protect the people, it is critical to learn whether or not the RhodeWorks law violates our state and federal constitutions ­ before we move forward with construction of this multimillion-dollar statewide tolling network,” Rep. Blake Filippi, a co-sponsor of Morgan’s resolution, said in a statement.

Rep. Daniel P. Reilly, R-Portsmouth, has separately called on RIDOT to release the legal opinions that its outside law firm, Hawkins, Delafield & Wood LLP, has provided regarding the constitutionality of the tolling plan.

Marie Aberger, a spokeswoman for Raimondo, responded by saying RhodeWorks “is strong, constitutional legislation that has gone through very thorough review and hours of debate over the past year.”

In addition to bids to be the toll facilities consultant, bids were also due last week from firms that want to conduct the investment-grade study of the tolling plan that RIDOT plans to commission. Only one firm – Louis Berger of Morristown, New Jersey – submitted a bid, but its proposal must still be reviewed and evaluated before the contract can be awarded, St. Martin said.

Tolling opponents aren’t waiting to attack the study’s findings, however.

The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, an industry group, released a brief last month that showed what it described as “glaring errors, bias and failings” in government-commissioned toll forecasts. Its examples included a 2014 study in the journal Transportation that concluded: “With rare exception, actual tollroad traffic in many countries has failed to reproduce forecast traffic levels.”

Preliminary list of proposed RI toll gantry locations (via RIDOT)

RI Truck Toll Gantry Locations

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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