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American Shipper

Motor carriers voice frustration over R.I. truck toll plan despite changes

Rhode Island Governor Raimondo is trying to raise $1.1 billion for bridge repairs by tolling commercial vehicles.

   Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo is modifying last month’s proposal to assess user fees on commercial trucks as a way to raise money for needed road and bridge improvements in the face of loud opposition from motor carriers in the state, according to the Providence Journal.
   Gov. Raimondo on May 27 unveiled a 10-year plan called RhodeWorks that would raise $1.1 billion through bonds to repair federal, state and local roads and bridges, and pay for the debt by electronically tolling trucks crossing bridges on interstates 95, 295 and 195, as well as some non-interstate roads. Rhode Island ranks last in the nation in overall bridge condition.
   The Governor’s plan focuses on bridges in an apparent attempt to skirt the federal prohibition on states tolling interstate highways. It is projected to generate about $100 million annually, with a median toll of about $6.
  Federal law authorizes the FHWA to allow three limited pilot programs across the country for tolling, although few have gotten off the ground.
  Raimondo on Tuesday said she would exempt smaller commercial trucks from the tolls and that trucks would only be tolled once per location per day in each direction, the Providence Journal reported.
  State legislative leaders praised RhodeWorks as a way to improve safety, create jobs and economic growth, and prevent a drain of businesses upset about poor infrastructure conditions. But groups representing truckers immediately pushed back, saying the revenue-scheme unfairly singles out motor carriers to carry the load for the state’s infrastructure problems.
   The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the Rhode Island Trucking Association on Monday sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration chief questioning Rhode Island’s authority to toll truckers on interstates. Among the issues the letter raised is whether Rhode Island would be eligible to use any federal transportation funds to implement its proposal and whether it risks losing federal highway aid.
   “Trucking did not create the state’s current infrastructure crisis – that was the result of years of mismanagement and massive diversion of fuel tax and other highway user fee revenue to fund general government expenses – and it is completely unfair that the industry be targeted to fix it,” Bill Graves, president of the American Trucking Associations and former governor of Kansas, said in a statement.
   The ATA has a long-standing policy of opposition toward tolling existing interstate highways for efficiency and safety reasons. The ATA argues that toll facilities divert revenue for high administrative and operational expenses compared to the fuel tax, and that truckers would take crowded secondary roads to avoid highway tolls.
   “As a former governor, I understand the importance of not only properly funding infrastructure, but maintaining the state’s fiscal house,” Graves said. “However, this plan to toll only trucks is quite literally highway robbery – stealing from our industry to paper over Rhode Island’s budget issues.
   “If Rhode Island’s leaders are serious about fixing their infrastructure funding woes, they should first and foremost, stop diverting much of their highway-related revenues to non-transportation projects,” he said. “Like nearly half the states have done previously, the state should enact a law that protects highway related revenues from being used for non-highway or transportation projects. Then they will have an accurate sense of what, if any, funding shortfall really exists before embarking on some enormously expensive, inefficient, easy to evade and discriminatory form of tax scheme.”
   RhodeWorks funds will be used to fix more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and make repairs to another 500 bridges to prevent them from becoming deficient. Rhode Island has not been able to catch up and bring bridges up to federal standards, and RhodeWorks would accelerate maintenance, enabling the state to bring 90 percent of its bridges up to par by 2024, according to the plan.
   “The shabby condition of our highways, roads and bridges is a serious impediment to economic growth that must be addressed quickly and completely,” Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, said in release issued by the state. “To put the urgency in context, ‘highway accessibility’ ranked as the most important factor to U.S. corporate site selectors in a comprehensive survey by Area Development magazine, up from its second place ranking in the previous year’s study. They note that the availability and condition of roads to, from, around, and away from America’s manufacturing facilities, distribution centers, industrial parks, and office complexes has become a more important economic development issue for the nation. States and communities that make the investments in increasing road infrastructure, and in existing infrastructure, will be in better shape for economic development.”
  “Any way you look at it, this RhodeWorks proposal makes sense,” said Abel Collins, vice-chair of the R.I. Sierra Club. “It’s only fair to ask the big trucks that are tearing up our roads to pay their share in fixing them, and, as those repairs are made with good paying jobs, to modernize our transportation system with transit investments that will support long term economic development and reduce tailpipe emissions.”

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