The Hummel Report: Taking its Toll

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 tolling gantries spread over five major highways across Rhode Island. The goal: to collect upward 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.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report, DOT 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% of more than a billion dollars to rebuild the state’s crumbling bridges, deemed the worst in the country.

A 10-year plan, which is posted online, runs more than 600 pages and the DOT recently published its first quarterly report, which lists budget and schedule information for all of its current projects. “The misconception many have is that tolling is going to provide the complete funding we need here at DOT,’’ Alviti told us. “Quite the reverse is true.’’

Alviti said the legislature last year created dedicated accounts, separate from the state’s general fund, to be used specifically for highway maintenance. They include the increased motor vehicle 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 DOT has to use for highway maintenance. That’s in addition to the state’s gas tax. The director said he is confident the state can withstand an expected legal challenge from the trucking industry.

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 traveled from New Hampshire to Virginia, examining the tolling systems in states like New Jersey and Delaware and the beltway that surrounds Washington, DC. 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 that 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.

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% of all commercial trucks on the road already have a transponder, like the EZ Pass, to read tolls electronically. “That tells you how accepted and how much these companies are paying in other states already,’’ Alviti said.

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.

“Without this kind of technology, we wouldn’t be looking at the more innovative way that we’re using tolling here in the state,’’ he said. “This technology brought the cost down and the accuracy up to a point where we can implement it on small-scale bridge projects very economically.”

Alviti says last month the state hired the Jacobs Engineering Group, headquartered in California, to oversee the design, construction and implementation of the toll program.

“Our objective in doing that is to have a single source that is responsible for all aspects of it, so there can be no finger pointing and  so there’s no excuses for it not to have a complete and continuous operation, uninterrupted during the lifespan of this equipment that we buy.’’

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.

 

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