- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Truckers and some Rhode Island businesses that use trucks urged lawmakers Monday to reject a proposal for a new toll on large commercial rigs, while unions and construction workers asked lawmakers to support it.

Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed tolling the big trucks to pay for a $500 million revenue bond for the state’s deteriorating bridges.

The House Finance Committee discussed a revised version of the proposal Monday that reduces how much it would cost truckers to cross the state and the average toll amount and that offers tax rebates and grants for truckers. The committee didn’t vote on the bill.

Robert Pitcher, vice president of American Trucking Associations, said he knew of no other state considering a truck-only toll. He said Rhode Island’s plan wasn’t clearly thought through. The Rhode Island Trucking Association also said the proposal is moving too fast, and the group called for the formation of a commission to study how tolls would affect the trucking industry and businesses.

“It doesn’t seem rational, really, to impose the entire burden on trucks,” Pitcher said, adding that the cost will get passed on to consumers through more expensive goods.

Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. said that motorists deserve safe bridges and that large trucks cause the most damage. It would cost more than $1 billion more and take seven years longer to fix the bridges using the department’s existing revenues because more bridges would become deficient over time and have to be replaced instead of repaired, he added.

“What we don’t need right now is another blue-ribbon panel to study this more. What we don’t need is another blue-ribbon panel to delay the jobs, the safety of Rhode Islanders,” Alviti said. “We can’t use blue ribbon to hold up the bridges of this state.”

Proponents say the tolls would pay for a revenue bond to repair deteriorating bridges as part of a $4.8 billion infrastructure plan called RhodeWorks. They’re calling it a “road to work plan,” Paul MacDonald, with Teamsters Local 251, told the committee.

“It is about safety. It is about good jobs and it is about making our jobs secure,” he said. “We need the work.”

A Senate committee is scheduled to vote on the plan Tuesday. The legislative session is expected to end this week.

The House Finance Committee discussed the toll plan when it was proposed as part of the budget. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello then decided to keep it out of the budget because he had questions about it and was concerned about the effect on businesses.

The proposal now is a stand-alone bill sponsored by the House and Senate majority leaders on Raimondo’s behalf. The administration changed the plan after listening to comments from businesses and legislative leaders.

The updated bill lowered 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 reconstruct more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and repair more than 500 others.

Tolls would be collected in 17 locations beginning in 2017, to generate $60 million annually, Alviti said. The debt service is estimated to cost $38.5 million annually.

Raimondo also wants to refinance some of the state’s existing debt, for a total bridge reconstruction program of $620 million.

The tax credit and rebate package is based on truck registration fees, motor fuel taxes and property taxes for Rhode Island truckers. Grants would be available for truckers who frequent T.F. Green Airport and the Quonset Business Park.

Sid Goldman owns Greylawn Foods, a warehousing and distribution company in Cranston, with 15 trucks. He said he’s paying more for health care costs for his employees and he can’t afford the toll too.

Construction Industries of Rhode Island, which advocates for construction companies, said investing in infrastructure will create good-paying jobs for thousands of construction workers. Raimondo’s spokeswoman, Marie Aberger, described the proposal as a “smart, sustainable solution” to reconstruct Rhode Island’s crumbling roads and bridges and create thousands of jobs.

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