- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A plan to charge big-rig trucks using Rhode Island highways is barreling through the state’s General Assembly as top lawmakers push for swift passage of legislation that stalled last year.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello called on lawmakers this week to “stop listening to the loud minority voices” decrying tolls that would raise money for a 10-year project to repair deteriorating bridges.

The tolls would charge tractor-trailers $20 to cross through the state along Interstate 95, the East Coast’s most important highway corridor. Rhode Island would become the only state to create a truck-only tolling system, though many East Coast states have tolls that make commercial trucks pay higher rates.

Peter Alviti, the state’s transportation director, appealed to lawmakers to reverse a long history of decay and poor planning that has left Rhode Island with “the worst bridges in America.”

Alviti spoke at hearings in the state Senate and House on Wednesday and Thursday that also fielded hours of fervent public testimony and some calls to slow down the process. A revised plan unveiled last week by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and legislative leaders is moving to a full vote in both chambers next week.

Opponents include shipping giant UPS and Massachusetts-based convenience store chain Cumberland Farms, which sent a sharply worded letter declaring the proposed tolls inequitable and misguided.

Christopher Maxwell of the Rhode Island Trucking Association pledged that truckers would do whatever they can to avoid the tolls, not just to avoid costs but as a protest against unfair treatment. Alviti said road signs and police enforcement will block trucks from using suburban and rural roads as escape routes.

“This isn’t Soviet Russia,” countered state Sen. Elaine Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican who said she has heard from many angry constituents. “You’re going to stop trucks from getting off the highway? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Although Alviti said more than half the toll revenue would come from out-of-state truckers passing through the nation’s smallest state, local truck operators say they will be hurt the most because they travel around the state multiple times each day. Using overhead gantries at 14 locations, the automatic tolling system would cap each truck’s charges at $40 per day. Each toll would be about $3.

Hundreds of union laborers crowded the State House on Wednesday to support the legislation that would create a surge of construction work in the coming years.

Democratic Sen. Leonidas Raptakis asked his colleagues to take a time out before rushing to vote on the bill. He said he hasn’t even had time to read the revised plan.

Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly but some have joined Republicans in opposing the plan or offering alternatives such as a higher gas tax.

“This is a 10-year project and all I’m asking is 90 days,” Raptakis said. “We’ve been bombarded with pros and cons on this project.”

The Senate last spring voted to approve Raimondo’s original plan but growing opposition and questions led Mattiello to halt it from progressing through the House.

Mattiello now fully backs the bill. He cited an economic study that found the tolls were a good idea.

Raimondo’s revised plan is also widely seen as more palatable than the one she pitched last year.

It counts on an infusion of federal highway money approved by Congress in the fall that helped bring down the proposed toll pricing and how much money needs to be borrowed. It also speeds up the work and provides stronger assurances that passenger vehicles will never be charged.

Lawmakers who want more assurances have proposed a constitutional amendment to ban car tolls.

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