GOP, truckers renew calls for lawmakers to repeal RI truck tolls

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Republican lawmakers and trucking industry leaders renewed their assault Tuesday on the truck tolls Gov. Gina Raimondo is using to fund her RhodeWorks infrastructure repair plan, calling for the tolls to be repealed.

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, was joined by fellow GOP legislators and the Rhode Island Trucking Association’s president, Chris Maxwell, for an afternoon news conference at the State House where they ticked off a variety of criticisms of the plan.

Morgan said she has conducted additional research that suggests the truck tolls would bring in far less revenue than promised, calling the legislation a “con job.”

The RhodeWorks truck tolls are expected to generate roughly $45 million annually once they’re fully up and running by the end of next year. But Morgan argued that number would be whittled down to about $7.4 million once a variety of fees and expenses are subtracted.

Expenses subtracted by the Republicans include things like registration fees for trucks, rebates for clean diesel fuel, maintenance and administrative costs, and credit card fees. The biggest expense they excluded, however, was $25 million in annual payments on GARVEE bonds – which is money the state borrowed to fund bridge and road repairs, to be repaid with revenue from future federal funding.

There was no response from the R.I. Department of Transportation or House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello as of early Tuesday evening. State lawmakers approved the truck toll plan in February 2016, and Mattiello has defended it as forcing trucks to pay for some of the damage they cause to the state’s infrastructure.

Morgan, who has submitted legislation to repeal RhodeWorks, called the tolls “highway robbery.” She said the net $7.4 million she still thinks the tolls will generate can be found elsewhere in the budget.

“We can find waste,” she said. “We can find that money in the budget.”

Maxwell, the trucking group’s leader, also presented findings his group commissioned from a professional engineer, who questioned how bridges were selected for replacement.

As an example, Maxwell cited the Oxford Street Bridge in Providence, which he said the engineer’s report showed to be in “very good shape,” with no user safety concerns, yet is slated to be replaced using the toll revenue.

Maxwell called for an independent oversight committee to review all RhodeWorks spending and bridge inspection information that was used for bridge selection.

“It adds insult to injury to think that they are going to tear down sound, functional overpasses to drive [the RhodeWorks] program,” he said in a statement.

Raimondo’s administration has repeatedly said RhodeWorks will save money over the long term by avoiding more costly repairs down the road. Tolling is expected to start by the end of 2017.

Separately on Tuesday, President Trump proposed a federal budget that would make it easier for states to levy tolls. “Tolling is generally restricted on interstate highways,” the White House said in a fact sheet. “This restriction prevents public and private investment in such facilities. We should reduce this restriction and allow the states to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets.”

Trump’s proposal won praise from the leader of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, who said “tolling is proven and effective.” But another group, the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, described itself as “very concerned” by the president’s suggestion.

Maxwell said truckers would be open to paying increased diesel taxes and registration fees to fund infrastructure repairs rather than tolls, but Morgan said she has not submitted a bill that would increase either of those.

Morgan’s bill to repeal RhodeWorks is scheduled to be heard before the House Finance Committee on Thursday night.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.