Standing under a decaying highway overpass in Olneyville, Governor Gina Raimondo on Wednesday unveiled a plan to improve Rhode Island's crumbling bridges by imposing a yet-to-be determined charge on large commercial trucks.
The plan calls for a $700 million bond issue, to be included as part of the budget for the next fiscal year, to jump-start transit-related construction work. To the delight of unionized workers in attendance, Raimondo characterized the initiative -- dubbed "Rhode Works" -- as a measure that will improve infrastructure while creating construction jobs.
The bond is envisioned as part of an overall $1.1 billion increase (including a $400 million request for federal funds for public transit) in planned infrastructure spending over the next 10 years. In terms of the $700 million bond issue, $300 million would go to accelerate bridge repairs across the state, while $400 million would support bridge repairs on routes 6 and 10.
State Transportation Director Peter Alviti told reporters earlier that the state plans to install roughly 17 to 20 electronic gantries on six highways around the state - Interstates 95, 195 and 295 and Routes 6, 10, and 145 -- by the end of 2017. Raimondo was emphatic in saying that the additional charges imposed on large commercial trucks will not be extended to cars and other personal vehicles.
"It's commercial vehicles, 18-wheelers and above," Raimondo said. "And the fact of the matter is, those are the trucks that cause 90 plus percent of the damage on our roads and bridges. They're also the ones that benefit most from high quality well-maintained roads, so to assess a modest user fee is a creative way of financing it."
The governor said Rhode Island is one of only two states between Maryland and Maine that don't assess a user fee on commercial trucks, Administration officials say the state intends to set its yet-to-be determined assessment in the mid-range of the cost typical of Northeast states.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed joined the governor for her news conference and expressed support for the infrastructure plan, while saying they'll also take into account the concerns of local trucking companies.
In a statement, Christopher Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, objected to Raimondo's plan to impose a new fee on commercial trucks.
“The governor mentioned 18-wheelers at her press conference, but this proposal greatly impacts all kinds of trucking including delivery trucks," Maxwell said. "Small business owners will be forced to pass increased costs onto their consumers, as they will have no other choice. To our knowledge, every other state that the governor cited in her press release that has tolls also includes passenger vehicles. This type of inequitable taxation will only hinder economic growth. We also are disappointed the governor has offered no specific tolling locations or costs associated with her proposal.”
The Trucking Association says it prefers a dedicated fuel tax as a way to pay for infrastructure improvements.
Roughly one in five Rhode Island bridges is considered deficient. Raimondo said the implementation of her plan will put most of the state's bridges in sufficient condition over a 10-year period.
This post has been updated.