6 updates on the RhodeWorks truck-toll law, 6 months after it passed

Raimondo RhodeWorks 2 - truck bridge toll plan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Thursday marks six months since Gov. Gina Raimondo signed into law RhodeWorks, her proposal for a surge of infrastructure projects funded in part by a new toll on trucks.

The $4.7-billion plan aims to bring Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges into better repair over the next decade, while also making other investments in various transportation initiatives. But critics argue the new tolling regime will hurt the state’s business climate and question whether the R.I. Department of Transportation can accomplish its goals.

WPRI.com reviewed documents and touched base with RIDOT Director Peter Alviti to get a status update on where implementation of RhodeWorks stands six months in.

• It will be at least another year before trucks start paying tolls. While RhodeWorks encompasses a number of provisions beyond truck tolls – from its overall $4.7-billion project schedule to bond authorizations – there’s no question that was the most widely debated part of the plan. RIDOT has estimated large trucks will pay $45 million a year in tolls on up to 14 bridges around the state once the system is up and running, providing additional funds for bridge repairs. So far RIDOT has hired two engineering firms, one to conduct a so-called “Level III” study with robust data on tolls and another to act as its representative in the design and rollout of the toll gantry system. The next step, which Alviti expects to happen by later this year, is to seek bidders to actually build and outfit the gantries. The agency is also working on environmental reviews and negotiating a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Federal Highway Administration. The bottom line: tolls could start being collected as early as late 2017 and definitely by 2018, according to Alviti. As for opposition, so far no legal challenges to tolling have been filed, but the Rhode Island Trucking Association has made clear it remains staunchly opposed to the idea.

• The number of bridge projects statewide is set to rise fast. If you’ve been driving in Rhode Island lately, you’ve probably noticed the installation of what RIDOT calls its new “project accountability signs,” which display the estimated cost and completion dates for bridge projects alongside a traffic-light system that show whether they’re on time. Alviti describes the signs as visual evidence of how he’s trying to instill a new culture of accountability and transparency at the agency. (Governor Raimondo recently called him for an explanation when she drove by a sign with a red light at the pier cap replacements project on Route 1 in South County; he told her the delay was caused by its new project manager coming up with a more durable fix that will take longer to put in place.) All told, RIDOT says it expects to advertise $143 million in construction projects this federal fiscal year (which ends Sept. 30) and $219 million next year, which would be the highest total since President Obama’s stimulus pushed the amount to $268 million in 2009. Alviti says he remains confident the supply of construction workers and materials is robust enough to keep up. According to RIDOT, over the last nine months 14 of Rhode Island’s 1,173 bridges have been removed from the structurally deficient list after being repaired or replaced – but 18 others were added the list after their latest inspections.

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• The costly 6/10 Connector project is in flux. By far the most expensive project added to the state’s construction schedule for the next 10 years under RhodeWorks is a rehabilitation of the 6/10 Connector bridge system in Providence. RhodeWorks calls for the state to spend $400 million on the 6/10, with seven of its nine bridges needing to be tackled. But RIDOT’s plan to redesign the connector with a tunnel and green space hit a major snag recently when the federal government denied its application to get $175 million for 6/10 from the FASTLANE program. Alviti insists the deterioriation of the 6/10 bridges means the projects still need to happen on the current schedule despite the snag, and says RIDOT is now “beginning to develop strategies” to rethink how to move forward. Meanwhile, though, the agency still faces vocal community opposition from advocates who say the state shouldn’t spend so much money revitalizing a highway system that slices up Olneyville and who didn’t like RIDOT’s proposed alternative. “We’re trying to figure it out,” Alviti says.

• The first of two rounds of borrowing for RhodeWorks is done. Future truck-toll revenue is only part of the new money provided for RIDOT under RhodeWorks. Another major component is two rounds of debt financing authorized by the General Assembly. The first is a refinancing of previous loans the state took out in the 2000s backed by its future federal highway funding; that transaction took place in June and yielded about $129 million that RIDOT can spend in the coming years, with the state’s interest rate reduced from 4.8% to 1.8%. (Alviti says the deal resulted in a net present value savings of about $2 million overall.) The second round of borrowing will be a new loan against the state’s future federal highway funding, taking advantage of a law Congress approved late last year. That second transaction is expected to yield about $300 million for RIDOT, and Alviti says he expects it to be complete by mid-October.

• RIDOT has made a number of other management changes. Governor Raimondo has said repeatedly RIDOT doesn’t just need more money – it needs to change how it operates to deliver better value to taxpayers. Last fall she announced a series of management changes that RIDOT claims could save taxpayers more than $1 billion over the next decade. So far those include a new leadership team with new job titles, a push to switch more staff to maintenance work, and the implementation of a project-management system. “We are in a really good place right now,” Alviti argues today. “As with many of our projects, we’re on time, on budget, and to scope – in many cases we’re ahead of schedule.” He says RIDOT staffers are “burning the midnight oil to get things done around here, and it’s beginning to show.” It will take time to see whether there is serious tangible evidence of the changes bearing fruit, though Alviti thinks the new project managers are already making an impact.

• Both sides are still battling over the politics of truck tolls. The nine-month State House battle over RhodeWorks left opponents steamed and vowing to punish its backers at the ballot box this fall. A number of General Assembly candidates are seeking to highlight their criticism of tolls as they woo voters, and two groups – The Gaspee Project and StopTollsRI – have sent mailers highlighting incumbents who voted in favor of the law. StopTollsRI is also circulating a candidate survey on the issue. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Trucking Association continues to fight the law, which has the attention of its national affiliate. RhodeWorks backers have made their own efforts to shore up support for the law. Vice President Joe Biden visited Rhode Island earlier this year to praise Governor Raimondo and lawmakers for supporting infrastructure spending, and Democratic Assembly leaders have continued arguing they made a tough decision to tackle a festering problem. Both sides are waiting to see if the issue has a significant impact at the polls come November.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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