Almost nine months after unveiling the initial version of her infrastructure proposal, Governor Gina Raimondo on Thursday signed into law a revised version of RhodeWorks that will trigger new tolls on big trucks on Rhode Island highways.
While Raimondo predicts the infusion of money for road and bridge repairs will create jobs, bolster the economy, and increase the state's appeal to business, critics warn that RhodeWorks will cost jobs, create problems through the diversion of trucks onto local roads, and have other negative effects.
For now, the General Assembly's lightning-fast approval of the infrastructure plan this week stands as a significant achievement for Raimondo, adding to her narrative of tackling some of the state's major problems.
Beaming, Raimondo signed RhodeWorks into law during a hastily assembled signing ceremony in the State Room of the Statehouse, shortly after final passage of the bill. That came after the state Senate passed the measure, 25-12.
Surrounded by House and Senate leaders, the governor credited them for putting their member through what she acknowledged was a tough vote.
"But you did it, and you did it for the right reasons," Raimonodo said. "Because we have Rhode Islanders to put to work, we have roads and bridges to fix and we have an economy to move forward. And as a team – we did this as a team – we worked collaboratively, we made the bill better and better, and we got it done."
Earlier, a few Democrats joined Republican opponents in opposing RhodeWorks, calling for slower consideration of the revised bill, and asking for alternative approaches to get more attention.
Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) warned of the consequence of placing 14 toll gantries on different highways (which is expected to happen in about a year).
"It’ll be negative to businesses," Algiere said during a more than two-hour debate in the Senate. "It will send the wrong message to our businesses. The diversion of traffic as a result of these gantries will create traffic and congestion on our secondary roadways through our small villages and towns off of 95, 295 and 195."
Yet after an overwhelming vote Wednesday in the House of Representatives, it was clear legislative leaders had locked down the tallies to back the bridge-repair plan, and efforts to throw it off track came up empty.
Some GOP lawmakers predicted RhodeWorks will not survive in court, and trucking industry groups have warned of a possible legal challenge.
"You're always concerned about that," Raimondo told reporters after signing the bill into law. "We worked very hard to craft a bill that we believe, certainly, is constitutional. But with every creative idea, there's always some risk. But we've got a great case, and that's not a reason not to act. That's what I said with pensions. We knew there will be legal risk. We have problems. We're going to act. We're going to solve problems and we'll deal with the legal issues as they arise."
The plan involves raising $45 million in annual revenue from tolls on trucks class eight and above, and borrowing against $300 million in federal transportation money.
Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello have pledged to look at steps to lessen the impact of truck tolls on Rhode Island companies.
On the question of whether 14 gantries represents too much tolling in a small state like Rhode Island, Raimondo said, "The list is preliminary. Step 1, pass the bill. General Assembly did a great job: Pass the bill. Now we work with [federal transportation officials], we do the next set of studies and figure out how many gantries do we need, where they gonna go. The thing that we need to do is make sure we solve the problem, right? We need enough money and a sustainable revenue stream to solve the problem, to fix our roads and bridges, to put people to work, so we'll get to work on that and make the right decisions."
Although the earlier iteration of Raimondo's infrastructure plan died without a House vote last year, a revised version surfaced in January. It had a fast trip through the legislature, passing the House and Senate Finance Committees on Tuesday, the full House Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday.
Asked about the concern that things may have moved too quickly, Mattiello defended the timing, with final passage coming on the day when lawmakers leave for a week-long February break.
"If I kept the infrastructure bill on the table, that would be sucking all the oxygen out of the room, it would be taking all of our attention," he told reporters. "There's a lot of political wrangling with it. And we wouldn't be able to do our job relative to the budget, so there's practical considerations for doing what we're going to do. And sometimes people ask for delay just to prevent the inevitable. If they had issues, if there was an idea that they wanted to consider, we're there to consider it. But I had no reason to delay it, I had every reason to move it, so that when we come back I can pivot to other important issues facing the citizens."