After seven hours of often sharp debate, the House of Representative on Wednesday voted, 52-21, to approve the revised version of Governor Gina Raimondo's plan to fix the state's crumbling infrastructure through new tolls on big trucks.
The state Senate is expected to approve the measure Thursday afternoon.
Nine Democrats joined 11 Republicans and one independent in voting against the proposal.
The passage of the initiative known as RhodeWorks is a significant milestone for Raimondo, although the impact of the plan remains sharply disputed among supporters and opponents, with little middle ground.
Speaking after the vote, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello predicted the truck toll plan will have a positive effect on Rhode Island's economy.
"People should know that 60 percent of the money [for tolls] is going to come from out of state," Mattiello told reporters. "Any other plan, the Rhode Island citizens would have to pay 100 percent of. We thought that was unfair since some of the damage is caused by out-of-state trucks. This plan is equitable. This plan is fair. This plan is good for our economy. Don't listen to the noise."
During the marathon debate, the 12-member Republican caucus (which includes an independent) unleashed a storm of persistent criticism against the truck toll plan. GOP lawmakers said RhodeWorks will hurt business, sent big trucks streaming through previously quiet streets in rural towns, and add new costs for consumers.
Governor Raimondo first proposed the bridge repair plan last May. The current version involves generating $45 million a year in toll revenue from big trucks and borrowing against $300 million in future federal transportation money.
But lawmakers like Rep. Anthony Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich) say the plan will negatively impact small and medium businesses, and he predicted it will lead to tolls on passenger cars.
Invoking Pearl Harbor, Giarrusso called the approval of truck tolls a day that will live in infamy in Rhode Island, since, he asserted, the will of voters was subverted.
"It seems to like we can’t really call ourselves a representative republic because I thought a representative republic is representative of the people," he said. This thing seems like to me like we’re representing special interests, not the interests of the constituents that we serve that put us here."
After hours of debate, no amendment had attracted more than 17 votes in the 75-member House of Representatives.
Ultimately, the Democratic majority had an overwhelming vote, with nine members breaking ranks to join the opposition: Dennis Canario; Greg Costantino; Ray Hull; Karen MacBeth; Michael Marcello; Jared Nunes; Robert Phillips; Joseph Solomon; and Thomas Winfield.
Two Democrats were absent for the vote, Representatives Jan Malik and Robert Craven.
Supporters predict the infrastructure plan will improve transportation safety, create thousands of new jobs, and make the state more appealing to business.
Some lawmakers said tolls are better than a tax increase, and that the disrepair of Rhode Island's lowest-in the-nation ranked infrastructure has become so bad that action is desperately needed.
But opponents like Robert Lafleur of the Rhode Island Independent Contractors said they’re not done opposing the bridge-repair plan. He spoke with reporters ahead of the vote, as trucks with "no tolls" signs blared their horns while circling the Statehouse.
"I think it’s going to be legally challenged, to be honest with you," Lafleur said, referring to RhodeWorks. "I know the Rhode Island truck owners and the ATA, the American Trucking Association, is very involved in this and they feel adamant that this is going to be a snowball affect across the country."
The debate began at about 3:30 pm and continued into the night, concluding after 10:30, with a pause earlier as lawmakers snacked on pizza.
A series of amendments steadily went down to defeat, including one proposal to allow voters decide the issue of truck tolls, and another to cap the number of toll gantries at 14.
As reps got peevish, Speaker Mattiello called on them to remain civil and to keep their comments limited to the amendment at hand.
Mattiello is a key figure in the debate. It was his opposition that led the House to not vote on an earlier version of the bridge-repair proposal last year, after the Senate approved it. The speaker supported RhodeWorks after a series of changes, including a $20 cap on tolls for a one-way pass through the state.
While the length of the toll debate led House Majority Leader John DeSimone to cite it as a good example of representative democracy, the outcome was never really in doubt and the back-and-forth struck opponents as a futile protest.
On Wednesday afternoon, House Finance chairman Ray Gallison (D-Bristol) began the discussion by acknowledging the bridge-repair plan may not be perfect. But he told lawmakers it was time to move ahead on fixing a problem after years of inaction.
Everyone agrees we need to vastly improve our infrastructure," Gallison said, reading from prepared remarks. "We will never get universal support for how we get there. It’s the reason we haven’t been able to find the money in the budget. We’ve had numerous study commissions, blue-ribbon panels and the like. The issue has been studied, the proposal is before you. It is ready."
Republican lawmakers said the revised plan was unveiled only about two weeks ago, and that majority Democrats did not consider alternative plans offered by the GOP, including the idea of using existing state funds to fix roads and bridges.
Opponents warn that lawmakers who support RhodeWorks could face re-election challenges this fall.
Yet in contrast to opponents, who described an outpouring of fierce sentiment from constituents, Mattiello said voters in his Cranston district expressed little to him against the toll plan. DeSimone told lawmakers he doesn't think they'll face trouble winning re-election if they explain to constituents their reason for voting in favor of truck tolls.
Mattiello has pledged to look in this session at efforts to help businesses that might be hurt by truck tolls -- an effort that needs to be separate from the legislation due to concerns about violating the US commerce clause.
Asked whether firms expressing worries were crying wolf or facing real harm, Mattiello said he does not believe the truck toll will pose "undue costs" to business.