The debate over Governor Gina Raimondo's proposal to use truck tolls to pay for fixing Rhode Island's troubled bridges resumed in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.
State DOT director Peter Alviti touted the plan known as RhodeWorks as a way to upgrade bridges, promote safety for drivers, and create jobs.
"As a native Rhode Islander, as a civil engineer, I ask that you approve this plan and allow us to bring the many talents of our Rhode Island workforce to bear in fixing our infrastructure," Alviti said.
Opponents, including Senator John Pagliarini (R-Tiverton), continued to question the legality of RhodeWorks, and to argue that it will hurt businesses and consumers. On a related note, a study released by the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council said the plan may not generate enough revenue at times.
The latest version of RhodeWorks would involve using 14 gantries to collect electronic tolls from trucks class 8 and above. The governor's office says the median toll would be $3 and that the cap for trucks using I-95 to cross the state would be $20.
In summarizing its report, RIPEC said, "The transportation finance proposal currently pending before the General Assembly is intended to eliminate this funding gap through a combination of increased borrowing and placing tolls on large commercial trucks traveling over a number of bridges throughout the state. RIPEC's analysis finds that the proposal does not provide sufficient resources to meet RIDOT's annual cash flow requirements in FY 2020, FY 2021, and FY 2022. However, the proposal does provide sufficient resources to meet RIDOT's entire ten-year funding requirements over the FY 2016 - FY 2025 period. Furthermore, the current proposal would result in a substantial accumulation of unprogrammed funds at the end of the FY 2016 - FY 2032 period."
Governor Raimondo's spokeswoman, Marie Aberger, said the RIPEC report confirms what the administration has been saying about funding bridge improvements -- "it shows that a combination of GARVEE bonds paired with toll revenue is a sensible policy option to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and bring our bridges into a state of good repair."
Aberger continued, "A borrowing-only plan is irresponsible. In the past, the state has issued large GARVEE bonds without combining them with a new, sustainable revenue stream -- they put our infrastructure on the credit card. That approach got us to where we are today: the state with the worst bridges in the country. By setting a modest toll on large trucks, RhodeWorks will generate enough revenue to fund our infrastructure reliably for the long-term and make our state a more attractive place for families to live and businesses to grow. Not to mention, we'll get thousands of people back to work fixing our roads and bridges in the process."
In a statement, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello appeared untroubled by the findings: “The plan that we are moving forward with is the right one and the analysis by RIPEC confirms that it is very viable. I respect RIPEC’s work greatly and this analysis will be shared with the House Finance Committee and thoroughly reviewed at tomorrow’s hearing. I was also extremely pleased that the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce strongly endorsed the RhodeWorks plan today at the annual legislative luncheon.”
Labor officials called on the Finance Committee to approve RhodeWorks, as a way of providing much-needed work for Rhode Islanders.
Raimondo initially unveiled her bridge-repair plan in May 2015. The state Senate approved it, but it didn't get a vote in the House, with Mattiello calling at the time for further study on the issue.
The House Finance Committee will hold its own hearing on the revised RhodeWorks plan Thursday. Neither Finance Committee is expected to vote on the plan until early next week, and at that point, the bridge-repair legislation is expected to quickly move to the floors of the two chambers.
This post has been updated.