Rhode Island wants to put tolls on a stretch of Interstate 95 near the Connecticut border in a story that resonates beyond the nation’s smallest state and its neighbors.
“Rhode Island is indicative of the struggle we have about transportation,” said Don Shubert, co-chairman of the U.S. Tolling Coalition, a Madison, Wis.-based group of public and private sector transportation interests urging Congress to allow states more flexibility in tolling their Interstate highways.
“What we’re saying to the federal government is, 'Let us have the discussion back home in the states,’ ” said Shubert, who is also executive director of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association.
Under a pilot program, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently let Virginia add tolls along the I-95 corridor in that state to pay for critical rehabilitation. Missouri has also received clearance. The U.S. Tolling Coalition wants congressional authorization for nationwide expansion.
Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation awaits word from the Federal Highway Administration on its application, sent June 29, to toll motorists near the Connecticut border.
“There’s been no response yet, but as far as we’re concerned, they’re still considering our proposal,” a spokesman for the Rhode Island DOT said late last week.
Ocean State officials propose using the toll money to replace the Providence Viaduct, a heavily traveled, structurally deficient bridge that carries I-95 across downtown Providence, the capital city; replace a major interchange at I-95 and Route 4 to relieve congestion and provide freeway access to the state’s business park; and bring the 43.3 miles of I-95 and the 23.6 miles of spur highway I-295 to good repair.
Putting a toll near the Connecticut line offers Rhode Island an opportunity to generate revenue without affecting people traveling in-state or Rhode Islanders commuting to the Boston area.
“Tolling is necessary to bridge the funding gap,” said Phillip Kydd, the state DOT’s deputy director in his letter to the FHA on behalf of the director, Michael Lewis. “Due to the conditions of the I-95 corridor and lack of sufficient state funds, tolling I-95 is necessary to maintain connectivity from Washington, D.C., to Boston.”
Debate about tolls comes against a backdrop of federal funding uncertainties and aging infrastructure, especially in the Northeast.
In a report to Gov. Tom Corbett in August, the Pennsylvania Funding Advisory Commission warned about rapidly decaying infrastructure.
“Roadways, bridges, transit, rail freight, aviation, ports and intercity passenger rail have all suffered as a result of insufficient funding, creating significant maintenance backlogs and reductions in service,” the report said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month proposed a $1 billion infrastructure fund as part of a legislative package that overhauled the state’s tax code.
Shubert recalled testifying before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee in 2010 with then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on behalf of a transportation infrastructure bank. Rendell, he said, “put billions into bridges and found himself with more structurally deficient bridges than when he started.”
Shubert added: “We’re all at that precipice.”
Rhode Island’s financial struggles generated headlines much of the year and prompted state lawmakers to enact a far-reaching overhaul of its benefit system for public workers. The state’s general obligation bonds are rated double-A by Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority last week approved the latest round of toll hikes as part of its $475.5 million fiscal 2012 budget. It approved the two-step phase-in three years ago.
Tolls will rise 53% on the Turnpike and 50% on the Garden State Parkway. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey earlier this year approved substantial toll increases on bridges linking the two states.
But those drivers are used to paying tolls. In Rhode Island, adding tolls means appeasing skeptical and even angry motorists who might see a new toll — amid a struggling regional and national economy — as yet another tax.
“That’s where education comes in,” said Shubert. “People are used to having the ride for free.”
The prospect of a border war could also loom. According to the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, while skirting particulars, has not ruled out the idea of putting up I-95 tolls at North Stonington, Conn., which abuts Hopkinton, R.I. State Rep. Anthony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, has been one of Connecticut’s most strident lawmakers favoring a return of tolls.
The state removed tolls on the Connecticut Turnpike and the Merritt Parkway following a toll-gate accident in Stratford in 1983 that killed seven people and injured many more after a tractor-trailer smashed into three cars.
“Tolls are much more efficient with new technology in place,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Moss also sees tolls as an effective user fee.
“The gasoline tax is no longer reliable because cars are more efficient,” he said.
Fitch, in its 2012 outlook for global infrastructure and project finance, said electronic tolling “does tend to desensitize drivers to rate increases” and could offset concerns about new tolls or toll hikes.
The rating agency also said an unwillingness or inability to raise tolls could have rating implications over the next two to three years. “Toll road facilities that are reaching the top of their debt threshold may face rating pressure if volumes remain flat or experience declines in 2012,” Fitch director Emari Wydick wrote.
Border-war opponents worry about inconveniencing out-of-state commuters. In addition, local residents of border towns such as Hopkinton and Richmond, both in Rhode Island, fear motorists will crowd local streets as they circumvent toll plazas.
Steven Sette, Richmond’s town administrator, cited fears of local gridlock, accident risk, damage to local roads, and the strain on fire and police resources in a letter on behalf of the Town Council opposing the tolls.
“This proposal was made without discussion or input from the affected local communities and the increased financial burden placed on local citizens who use the Interstate daily to commute to work,” Sette wrote.
However, Shubert, of the U.S. Tolling Coalition, remains optimistic that regional cooperation will prevail.
“We’d rather see the New England states working together,” he said. “We have a lot in common.”