Scott MacKay Commentary: Rhode Island's Truck Tolls

Jul 20, 2018

Truckers are now paying tolls on the Rhode Island side of on Interstate 95. They've racked up more than a half million dollars in just the first month of the tolling program.  RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says that’s hardly the end of this debate.

Highway in Providence
Credit ThisIsBossi / Flickr

  

‘Tis the season of road and bridge construction. It seems like you can’t drive anywhere without encountering the pungent odor of fresh asphalt, the drone of backhoes and long lines of the unofficial summer state tree --- the orange highway cone.

All this work is both inconvenient and necessary. You don’t have to be a civil engineer to know that roads and bridges in these parts have been neglected for too long. Just about every national ranking of infrastructure needs has Rhode Island scraping the bottom.

For an eye-opening  contrast, take a drive north to New Hampshire or Vermont. What you will experience are miles and miles of smooth highways. Then when you drive back and hit the Massachusetts border, the cracks and potholes reappear. And when you get to Rhode Island, things get even worse. If your tires were dogs, they’d be barking.

The truck tolls were approved by the General Assembly in 2016 in response to these awful roads and unsafe bridges. There was a fierce debate, with the trucking industry and Republican lawmakers opposed. This fight has continued with the truckers threatening a lawsuit and the issue spilling into this year’s political campaigns.

But the tolls have been in place for a month in the southern part of the state. The state Department of Transportation says things have been going well. The truck tolls have so far brought in more than $600,000, about $27,000 more than was projected.

Most motorists haven’t even noticed the truck tolls. They are collected electronically through overhead structures called gantries. They are only imposed on large tractor-trailer trucks.

But this early success hasn’t toned down the critics. House Republican Leader Patricia Morgan, who is running for her party’s gubernatorial nomination, calls the tolls “highway robbery” and a “con job” on Rhode Islanders. She and others say the truck tolls are just a stalking horse in a plan by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Assembly’s Democratic  leadership to impose tolls on cars.

The truck tolls are part of a plan to harvest about $450 million over 10 years, part of a $5 billion program to fix crumbling bridges and roads.

Peter Alviti, head of the state DOT, says many studies show that tractor-trailers with heavy loads cause more damage to roads than passenger cars or SUVS. He also says that these big trucks lead to higher bridge costs because bridges have to be made stronger to sustain big loads.

There is no secret drawing board at DOT with plans to expand the tolls to cars, Alviti says. The legislation enacting the truck tolls expressly prohibits tolls on passenger vehicles. This means that a future Assembly would have to vote on any expansion of tolls to cars. House Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, says he opposes any plan to toll passenger vehicles.

Rhode Islanders take a dim view of government. Decades of public corruption and dumb decisions a la 38 Studios have cemented citizen mistrust. Yet, the roads have to be repaired. Other New England states, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine toll cars. Passenger vehicles pay tolls to cross the Pell Bridge, which doesn’t seem to stop anyone from flocking to Newport in summer. Connecticut lawmakers are considering bringing back tolls in a state where they were abolished thirty years ago after a truck crash killed seven people at a toll booth on Route 95.

When it comes to fixing infrastructure, nothing is cheap. One fortuitous  aspect of all the discussion in Rhode Island is that alternatives were considered. The state could have raised the gas tax or other fuel taxes to pay for roads and bridges. There was little appetite for that among lawmakers.  Fuel taxes don’t provide a reliable revenue stream in an era of high-mileage cars and the rapid advance time of electric vehicles. And lawmakers in recent sessions have been loath to raise income or sales taxes for any purpose.

So if you don’t like potholes, you’d better get behind the truck tolls.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org