Senate approves truck toll proposal that would raise money to fix bridges

IndustrialsAssociated Press

The Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would create a new toll on large commercial trucks to raise money for repairs to deteriorating bridges.

The Senate action followed an endorsement of the proposal earlier Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee. A House committee held a hearing Monday but didn't vote.

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Revenue from the tolls would be used to pay for $500 million in borrowing for the bridge repairs.

Truckers have said they would drive on local roads or skip Rhode Island to avoid the toll, and that the plan would hurt the state's economy. Robert Pitcher, vice president of American Trucking Associations, said he's concerned with the scope and unprecedented nature of the plan. Tolls would be collected in 17 locations beginning in 2017.

The Federal Highway Administration knows of only one other highway with truck-only tolls, a stretch of the New York State Thruway, said spokeswoman Nancy Singer. She said the administration doesn't track this information comprehensively.

Singer said the administration is working with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to better understand its proposal and assess how federal requirements might apply. There currently are no similar proposals before the Federal Highway Administration to toll trucks.

Bill Fischer, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Trucking Association, said the association isn't currently considering challenging the plan in court. He said the association wants to see how the legislative session unfolds.

The session is expected to end this week.

Sen. Louis DiPalma, a Little Compton Democrat and one of the sponsors of the bill, said he listened to the industry's concerns and the plan now includes tax rebates and grants for truckers.

The updated bill also lowers the total amount of bond authorization from $700 million to $500 million. The cost of crossing the state was reduced from a maximum of $50 to $30, and the average toll amount was reduced from $6 to $3.50. It would take a year longer to rebuild more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and repair more than 500 others.

The bill was introduced on behalf of Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Some unions for construction workers are pushing for the plan, saying they need the work.

Also on Tuesday, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello asked Raimondo to investigate the state transportation department's decision to close the Park Avenue Bridge in Cranston. The department said it found significant deterioration in the timber deck during an inspection on Monday that was part of a new accelerated inspection effort. Mattiello said the bridge had remained open after an inspection last September.