The revised bill to fix Rhode Island's crumbling bridges through new tolls on big trucks appears head to fast final passage before the end of the week, despite warnings from critics who see the plan as a threat to the state's economy.
On a 14-4 vote, House Finance Committee approved the so-called RhodeWorks bill. Rep. Ray Hull (D-Providence) joined three committee Republicans, Patricia Morgan of West Warwick, Daniel Reilly of Portsmouth, and Anthony Giarrusso of East Greenwich, in opposing the measure.
The Senate Finance Committee passed the bill 8-2, with the no votes from Sens. John Pagliarini (R-Tiverton) and Edward O'Neill (I-Lincoln).
The bill is expected to go to a vote in the full House on Wednesday, with a Senate vote to follow on Thursday.
The only drama during the votes came when Morgan objected to being told by House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison that she was out of order, due to questions that Gallison ruled irrelevant.
"I’m not out of order," Morgan said. "We are here to find the truth. To find all of the information that is related to this bill, sub A or regular bill."
Earlier on Tuesday, a coalition of supporters -- ranging from Governor Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed to business and labor groups -- staged a news conference at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. They called the improvements that will be made possible by truck tolls a big boost for Rhode Island's economy.
But the CEO of Ocean State Job Lot, Marc Perlman, was among those who came to the Statehouse in the afternoon to speak with reporters against the truck toll measure. Perlman said it's unfair to exclusively focus the cost of repairs on big trucks, considering how, he said, past mismanagement at the state Department of Transportation and other factors explain the sorry state of local infrastructure.
"Everybody has contributed to the problem," he said. "How could you classify it as fair that only large trucks should be responsible? It’s not done anywhere else and it shouldn’t be done here."
Perlman called for a slower examination of different alternatives. He also circulated articles describing how tolls had an adverse effect in New York. Without changes to the truck toll bill, Perlman said, "I believe that there will be enormous instability in trucking, warehousing and logistics in this state."
Earlier, Governor Raimondo and other supporters rallied support ahead of the afternoon committee votes.
Raimondo, Mattiello and Paiva Weed were joined by representatives of labor, AAA, and other groups during a morning news conference at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. The theme was that fixing deteriorating bridges is vital to Rhode Island's economy, and that the time for action is at hand.
Asked later about the concerns -- expressed by some businesses -- that truck tolls could harm the state's economy, Raimondo said the exact cost is yet to be fixed (although the typical truck toll is expected to be $3, and a one-way cross through the state for trucks will be capped at $20).
She added: "Once people settle down and look at the actual impact, they’ll realize it’s probably much smaller than they’re now thinking of and afraid of. Over the past 10 months, I’ve had the opportunity to sit with many, many businesses. They come in afraid. We sit down with them, we go through the actual numbers, and they say, ‘oh, that’s not so bad.’ "
Mattiello reaffirmed that the House will take action this session to address some of the concerns raised by businesses about truck tolls. That will be a separate effort from the truck toll legislation, since it’s not legal to treat in-state and out-of-state trucks differently in the same bill.
Separately, Rep. Morgan (R-West Warwick) called for a delay in consideration of the truck toll legislation.
In a letter to House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison, Morgan wrote: "This bill, introduced January 28th will impact Rhode Island for decades to come. It is our duty to the people of Rhode Island to debate its merits and review all information possible. Voting this bill out of Finance Committee without all of the information and within two weeks of its introduction is a travesty to those who elected us as Representatives."
In a statement, Mattiello responded, “Rep. Morgan was given more than ample time to ask Director Alviti numerous questions during the Finance Committee hearing that lasted nearly 10 hours last week. She wanted to ask more questions of him at midnight, and Chairman Gallison rightly suggested that she put those questions in writing, which Director Alviti answered. That was the third House Finance hearing on the proposal since last session, and the issue has been discussed for the past 10 months. For her to suggest that we need more time is simply a delay tactic to serve her own political agenda.”
The StopTollsRI coalition and the RI Republican Party say truck tolls will eliminate jobs in Rhode Island and hurt the state's economy.
The coalition also warned of a political cost for lawmakers who back the truck toll bill. In a statement, the group said, "With committee votes on tolls imminent, the StopTollsRI coalition is serious about building a war-chest to take on legislators who vote yes for tolls. StopsTollsRI, through their partner organization The Gaspee Project, has taken initial steps to form a PAC to fund candidates who will run against pro-toll politicians. With Rhode Islanders speaking out against tolls, yes votes on toll legislation represents a direct violation of the will of the people."
Trucking groups have also warned that a legal challenge to the truck toll plan is likely.
This post has been updated.