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GOP Lawmakers Unveil Plan to Fix Bridges Without Truck Tolls

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A half-dozen Republican lawmakers unveiled a proposal Wednesday to steer $875 million to improving Rhode Island's decrepit bridges over 10 years...

A half-dozen Republican lawmakers unveiled a proposal Wednesday to steer $875 million to improving Rhode Island's decrepit bridges over 10 years without imposing tolls on trucks and without the borrowing costs in a competing plan backed by Governor Gina Raimondo.

"Our state budget is $8.7 billion and what are proposing to spend is less than 1 percent of the total budget," state Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick) said during a State House news conference. "We felt and we have proven that you can find that money right out of existing funds. We do not have to toll Rhode Islanders, we do not have to take on extra taxes or fees, and we do not have saddle future generations with incredible interest costs, borrowing costs."

Morgan said the Republican Policy Group's proposal would raise $900 million over 10 years, including $875 that would be used for bridge construction. She called that a better return on investment than Raimondo's plan to raise more than $1 billion, with a fraction of it going to construction.

Yet House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello quickly criticized the proposal, underscoring uncertainty about the outlook for it to move forward.

Funding for the GOP plan takes up four pages of a document distributed during a State House news conference. The funding sources include:

-- $120 from refinancing GARVEE bonds used to finance construction of the I-way; The amount would be divided into four $30 allotments during each of the first four years of the GOP plan.

-- $24 million, starting in 2016, from past increases in DMV fees, including inspection fees, dismissal of good driver cases, licenses and registration renewals. The amount from this source would grow over time to almost $60 million in the final year of the 10-year plan.

-- $500,000 a year from an annual subsidy for Twin River, described by Republicans an egregious example of corporate welfare;

-- $3 million a year from state film tax credits;

-- $4 million a year from the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly. Republicans say the legislature's budget has by more than 60 percent over the past 12 years, to more than $40 million.

Other funding sources include the RI Convention Center Authority (from $1.5 million a year to a height of $3.75 million); $300,000 a year from the Medical Advisory Board, part of the Workers Compensation Court; $25,000 a year, for six years, from state capital projects; $500,000 a year from art expenses on state projects; $526,000 a year in energy savings; $2 million a year, for eight years, from the Cadillac Tax in Obamacare; and $200,000 a year from the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket.

Mattiello responded by sharply criticizing the GOP plan.

“This is Rep. Morgan’s recycled proposal supported by a minority of the minority caucuses," Mattiello said in a statement. "She didn’t have enough support last session to offer a budget amendment and now she is trying to keep her flawed plan alive. Unfortunately, she doesn’t identify the bulk of where the cuts would come from in the budget and she fails to recognize that there is an existing $150 million structural deficit heading into the next fiscal year."

Mattiello said the Republican proposal double-counts DMV fees. He faults the plan for cutting significantly into a program that protects existing state buildings. "Just as prior administrations have done, [Morgan] fails to address capital needs and will leave a disaster for future generations," Mattiello said. “She also proposes to take money away from tax credit programs and marketing efforts which promote economic development. This proposal is not focused on moving our state’s economy forward. This plan also restricts our growth and keeps us from achieving our full potential as a state."

Rhode Island's bridges are considered among the worst in the nation.

Raimondo has argued that imposing tolls on trucks makes sense, in part due to how the practice is common elsewhere in the Northeast. The Senate passed her plan earlier this year, but it stalled in the House. An impact study on Raimondo's plan is expected to be released Thursday.

In a statement, Raimondo spokeswoman Marie Aberger also criticized the GOP proposal.

"Our roads and bridges have real problems, so we're glad that House Republicans recognize that we have to invest more in our infrastructure," Aberger said. "We need real, long-term solutions, though, and, this isn't one of them."

"There are several problems with this proposal," Aberger continued. "First, it fails to account for the fact that we already have an expected shortfall of more than $150 million next year. Second, the proposal would siphon resources away from essential services such as snow removal, highway electricity, and pothole repair. And finally, this approach delays investment as these funds do not reach significant levels until the second half of the ten-year timeframe - waiting even longer will make it even more expensive to fix our problems."

Morgan was joined during the news conference by Sens. Mark Gee and Elaine Morgan, and Reps. Blake Filippi, Michael Chippendale, and Sherry Roberts. She said Minority Leader Brian Newberry supports the plan, but could not attend due to a timing conflict.

Morgan acknowledged the Republican proposal may face an uncertain outlook in a legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats.

"The Democrats may disagree with us," she said. "We will look at any alternative that they propose. But what we will not accept is tolls for Rhode Island. It adds way too much jeopardy to our state, in interest costs, in gantry costs, even in the maintenance of gantries."

Morgan said if citizens oppose tolls, they should speak up in support of the GOP plan.

This post has been updated.

Morgan, at podium, outlines the GOP's infrastructure proposal.
Morgan, at podium, outlines the GOP's infrastructure proposal.