Taking a Toll
Critics argued that within a $9 billion annual budget the Rhode Island could find $45 million to help fund desperately-need bridge repairs across the state, instead of tolling trucks. But now that the Rhode Works tolling plan is law, the state’s D.O.T. is working toward a launch in 18 to 24 months. This week, Jim Hummel begins a two-part series to see what’s been going on behind the scenes, takes a closer look at the tolling technology and finds out what other states along the Eastern seaboard are doing on their highways.
For more details on the Rhode Works program, click here.
It is full steam ahead for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, and by 2018 trucks entering the state can expect more than a dozen gantries like this one spread over five major highways across Rhode Island. The goal: to collect upwards of $45 million a year and spend it on much-needed bridge repair.
When the debate about - and vote on - Governor Raimondo’s controversial Rhode Works plan ended three months ago, the DOT focused on getting the truck tolling plan up and running in 18 to 24 months - while it borrows funding to get actual road repairs going this year.
Alviti: ``The entire program has its foundation in a 10-year plan, a very solid 10-year plan that we put together.’’
In a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report, D.O.T. Director Peter Alviti talked about Rhode Works’ mission and what Rhode Island taxpayers can expect as the department implements a tolling plan expected to provide 10-15 percent of more than a billion dollars to rebuild the state’s crumbling bridges, deemed the worst in the country.
That’s part of a larger, $4.7 billion budget to cover the entire transportation system, including highway maintenance and operations. Federal money has, and will continue to account, for the vast majority of that spending.
Alviti: ``This year we have $140 million of bridge and road contracts going out between now and the fall of this year. Next year that will go up to $200 million and for two years after that...’’
Hummel: ``$200 million in addition to the $150 million?’’
Alviti: ``That’s correct.’’
Hummel: ``At the end of the 10 years, Director, what percent of those structurally deficient bridges are going to be covered in terms of bringing up to snuff.’’
Alviti: ``90 percent of the bridges in Rhode Island will be structurally sufficient. Only 10 percent will be left, structurally deficient.’’
The 10-year plan, which is posted online, runs more than 600 pages and the DOT just published its first quarterly report, which lists budget and schedule information for all of its current projects.
Alviti: ``The misconception many have that tolling is going to provide the complete funding we need here at D.O.T. Quite the reverse is true.’’
Alviti said the legislature last year created dedicated accounts - apart from the state’s General Fund - to be used specifically for highway maintenance. They include the increased motor vehicle and registration and license fee surcharges we’ve all been paying and other fees and surcharges that have generated more than $44 million already this year, which D.O.T has to use for highway maintenance. That’s in addition to the state’s gas tax.
Alviti: ``Even counting all of that funding in order to accomplish that goal we needed another 10-15 percent additional revenue.’’
The plan is to put up a total of 14 gantries: six over the length of Route 95, three over Route 295, two over Route 146, two over Route 6 and one over Route 195.
Over the past two months The Hummel Report travelled from New Hampshire to Virginia, examining the tolling systems in states like New Jersey, and Delaware and the beltway that surrounds Washington, D.C. While they all employ state-of-the-art technology - Rhode Island plans to use exclusively what’s called Open Road Tolling - no toll booths or collectors. And we found, none of those states tolls only trucks. Only a small section of the New York Thruway - part of a larger system - does that.
The projected cost of the gantries and high-tech tolling equipment is $38 million. The state’s trucking association has threatened legal action, but can’t take it until the first toll is collected.
Hummel: ``How concerned are you about a legal challenge? What were the internal discussions that went into tolling truck only? I know that challenge is going to come. How confident are you that you survive that challenge and that all of this work that goes into it doesn’t somehow have to change because some judge somewhere says, sorry you can’t do this.’’
Alviti: ``There are a couple of things that make me very comfortable and highly confident that we’ll withstand any challenges that come. First of all federal law allows it. It’s very clear in federal law that they leave the discretion of what class of vehicles - in fact they’re very specific in saying this - they leave what class of vehicles, and the method and amount that’s being tolled to whatever classes of vehicle are being tolled entirely up the individual states to make. We have crafted a methodology here that is well within our constitutional privilege to do so.’’
Alviti reiterated with us an argument he made before the legislature in pitching the Rhode Works program this past year: the issue of equity.
Hummel: ``I have yet to see a model, and maybe you have, where it is trucks only, where you don’t at least charge 10 cents for a car. Regardless of whether it’s inequitable or not, then how do you fix it and other states are charging all types of vehicles.’’
Alviti: ``The way we looked at it overall what people are being charged. And, in fact, even after we asssess the tolls to trucks only there still not paying their fair share of the total amount. In Rhode Island, one of the few states where heavy vehicles aren’t tolled, he majority of tolls that are going to be paid here are from out of state truckers.’’
Under a revised Rhode Works plan, the median individual toll will be $3, with a cap of $20 to cross the state in one direction and a $40 cap for a round trip in one day. Alviti says 90 percent of all commercial trucks on the road already have an transponder - like the EZ Pass - to read tolls electronically.
Alviti: ``That tells you how accepted and how much these companies are paying in other states already.’’
Hummel: ``Because they’re travelling on the Mass Pike, they’re travelling on the New Jersey Turnpike. They’re going over the Delaware Memorial Bridge.’’
Alviti: ``90 percent of them are already paying tolls in other states. For the 10 percent that don’t, there is technology available as you’ve seen in New Hampshire and elsewhere, that will pick up the billing information from the license plate and automatically send them bills:20
So what about actually getting the bridge work done? Others have questioned if the repair program is too ambitious.
Hummel: ``We’ve talked about jobs, do you have enough people, contractors, equipment to be able to do that?’’
Alviti: ``We consulted heavily with labor, contracting, businesses here in the state that would be supplying this to make sure that we could match the demand we’re creating. What we’re finding is, for examples, next year at $200 million in contracts going out, that about equals the highest year of the Obama stimulus years in the state, contracts on the order of that same amount. And the labor force and the contracting force was more than sufficient, they pretty much ramped up to that level of funding.’’
Hummel: ``Does that include out-of-state companies coming in as well?’’
Alviti: ``Yes, yes it does. So the labor force is always going to be local, I mean a certain percentage of the labor force, even historically, may have come from out of state but generally the labor force in the trades that build these kinds of structures, the roads and the bridges, is available here in Rhode Island.’’
There is no doubt the technology that has evolved even in the past five years will allow Rhode Island to follow the lead of other states we saw and collect toll revenue with much lower overhead.
Alviti: ``Without this kind of technology, we wouldn’t be looking at the kind of more innovative way that we’re using tolling here in the state. This technology brought the cost down and the accuracy up to a point where we can implement it on small-sale bridge projects, very economically.’’Alviti says the state last month hired the Jacobs Engineering Group, headquartered in California, to oversee the design, construction, and implementation of the toll program.
Alviti: ``Our objective in doing that is to have a single source that is responsible for all aspects of it, so that there can be no finger pointing; so that there’s no excuses for it not to have a complete and continuous operation, uninterrupted during the lifespan of this equipment that we buy.’’
Boynton: ``Our gantries are 99.95 percent accurate.’’
Next week we go on the road to New Hampshire, which has one of the oldest turnpike systems in the country and five years ago began its own Open Road Tolling - with state-of-the-art technology that Rhode Island is now looking at.
We’ll tell you exactly how the system works: from vehicle detection to billing and hear more from D.O.T. Director Peter Alviti on Rhode Island’s plans for Rhode Works.
Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.