Every Rhode Islander knows our state’s roads and bridges need repairs. Yet lawmakers closed up shop at the General Assembly without taking action on a plan to raise the money via truck tolls. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on what the General Assembly needs to do to pay for the needed fixes.
Despite six collegial months, the General Assembly did not have a happy ending. The 2015 session crashed and amid the usual Smith Hill blame game. Several big issues were left without resolution, notably a plan to shore up the state’s aging bridges and roads.
There are many politicians who failed on this important issue. Gov. Gina Raimondo made a hash of a plan to increase tolls on trucks to pay for highway and bridge repairs. She rolled out a poorly thought out proposal too late in the session for serious consideration. Then she tried to change it to meet objections of the trucking lobby, which only confused lawmakers.
Then came the dramatic closing of an ailing bridge near House Speaker Nick Mattiello’s Cranston law office. Some think was a dumb political stunt. Others view it as a smart move to protect public safety. Either way, the timing was awful.
So politics, as so often happens in our tiny state, morphed into farce. Now it is time to run the reel backward, start over, and craft a reasonable solution to a problem that has been many years in the making.
The governor is absolutely correct in her diagnoses – we are in dire need of these infrastructure investments. But nothing is ever as simple as her cure. What needs to happen very soon is for lawmakers to make a public policy decision they have ducked forever – how to pay for needed repairs.
There are many, many ways to finance these improvements. The state collects income taxes, sales taxes and casino taxes. And levies car taxes, as well as registration and license fees. Tolls are another option.
What’s needed is a sober look at all of the spending and taxing streams. Mattilello refused to go along with the trucking tolls in the waning hours of what became a messy Assembly session. He may have a point here.
The delay means that lawmakers and the governor will have chance to see what Washington, D.C. decides on a big transportation measure that is stalled in the usual Democratic and Republican squabbling in Congress. While some in Congress are willing to raise gasoline and diesel taxes to finance road and bridge repairs, others balk at any tax hike.
It is a sad state of affairs, because the easiest way to boost the deficit-ridden federal Highway Trust Fund would be to boost fuel taxes, which have been set at 18 cents a gallon on gas and 24 cents on diesel since 1993. Had these levies kept up with inflation, they would be about 30 cents per gallon today.
Yet, raising fuel taxes is no panacea. While today’s cars and trucks consume more than 8 million barrels of oil a day in total, the Department of Energy estimates that better fuel efficiency means that the vehicles of 2040 will burn only about 6 million barrels. That estimate takes into account population growth and an increase in total miles traveled.
The lobbying scrum over tolls pitted several well-heeled interest groups against each other. While truckers opposed Raimondo’s toll plan, building trades unions and the construction industry pushed the proposal.
Opponents asserted tolls would hurt the economy. That seems silly to anyone who has ever driven the Massachusetts Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston on a bumper-to-bumper summer Sunday afternoon.
Tolls on the Pell Newport Bridge don’t seem to stop tourists from flocking to the City by the Sea. But lawmakers on the East Side of Narragansett Bay seem convinced that Tiverton would float out into the Atlantic if the Sakonnet River Bridge charged tolls.
There is a path out of this morass. That would be for a commission of lawmakers, Ramiondo’s team and transportation experts to sit down and decide a policy for financing necessary road and bridge repairs. The alternative is too grisly to contemplate. If you think our crooked politicians make us a national punch line, imagine what would happen if a bridge collapse sent cars crashing down to a river or railroad track..
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org