As expected, Governor Raimondo's controversial truck toll proposal quickly emerged as a hot topic on the first day of the 2016 General Assembly session. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he expects a revised version of the governor's plan to emerge in a week or two, although it might take longer, and that he anticipates passage early in the session.
Republicans like West Warwick state Representative Patricia Morgan have helped lead the fight against Governor Raimondo’s truck toll proposal. They argue it would hurt the state and that the money to fix bridges should instead be found in the state budget.
So as about 100 Rhode Islanders gathered in the State House rotunda ahead of the first legislative session, Morgan called on them to contact their lawmakers, sign anti-toll petitions, and visit the StopTollsRI.com web site.
“Citizens are more powerful than they think they are," Morgan said. "I know a lot of folks sitting in their living rooms say, 'Well, we can’t do anything about it.' But you can.”
She pointed to how tolls were squelched on the Sakonnet River Bridge, and the master lever eliminated, thanks in large part to public sentiment.
Yet there are just 15 Republicans in the 113-member legislature. That explains why House GOP leader Brian Newberry, speaking after the session, was resigned to the eventual passage of Raimondo’s truck-toll concept -- not that he likes it.
“Here’s what it comes down to," Newberry said. "We’re not enacting tolls to fix bridges, we’re enacting tolls so the Democrats can avoid making cuts in the budget that they don’t want to make for political reasons. That’s what this is all about.”
Not if you ask Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. He put the brakes on Raimondo’s truck-toll plan after the state Senate approved it last June. Mattiello pointed to a state-commissioned economic study in asserting truck tolls will boost the state, in different ways.
“That will be a boon for our economy," Mattiello said. "It’ll be a catalyst, people will get back to work. Families will be enhanced and the quality of life for all Rhode Islanders will be advanced when they’re not crossing bridges that are not as safe as they should be.”
The governor’s office yesterday released a list of preliminary sites for truck toll gantries on state highways, although the precise cost of the tolls remains unknown. The Rhode Island Trucking Association called the release long overdue, and said more questions remain unanswered about Raimondo's plan.
Mattiello said a revised truck toll proposal could emerge in the next week or two. He believes the bridge improvement plan can be accomplished without floating $600 million in new bonds, sharply reducing the cost of Raimondo’s initial $1.1 billion proposal. Yet a state Senate spokesman said that Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio has concerns about the potential scaling back of the bridge-repair plan.
The exact final shape of the plan known as RhodeWorks remains to be determined through a mix of public hearings and backroom discussions among lawmakers.
This post has been updated.