Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo on Thursday night signed a sweeping $500 million bridge-and-road improvement bill that includes controversial tolls for large trucks on the state's Interstate highways.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate approved the so-called RhodeWorks plan by a 25-12 margin, one day after the House signed off on a 52-21 vote. Spirited debate consumed seven hours in the House and three in the Senate.
Raimondo pushed for the bill the past two years, citing architectural studies that called Rhode Island's bridges the nation's worst.
Funding will come from a $300 million Garvee bond backed by future federal highway funding, plus a Garvee refinancing to provide an additional $120 million.
State officials have projected $45 million per year from the truck tolls – an estimated 60% of that from out-of-state trucks -- though the trucking industry has accused Raimondo's administration of overstating the revenue.
Truckers objecting to the measure honked horns repeatedly outside the state capitol building on Smith Hill in Providence. The Rhode Island Trucking Association, calling the law discriminatory, has threatened court action.
The move comes as many older states are grasping how to fund aging infrastructure amid budget tightness.
Neighboring Connecticut, for instance, is weighing Gov. Dannel Malloy's proposed 30-year, $100 billion transportation plan, including a constitutional amendment to protect related funding in lockbox accounts.
Last year the bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Raimondo resubmitted the bill this year, which included $258 million in new federal funding over 10 years and a ban on tolling passenger vehicles without a statewide referendum.
It also lowered the statewide cap on the toll to cross the state from $30 to $20 and reduced the number of tolling gantries from 17 to 14.
The bill Raimondo signed does not call for bonds to be issued against the truck tolls – all the bonds in the bill will be Garvees.
"It was not an easy vote," Raimondo told reporters. "But we have roads and bridges we have to repair. We made the bill better and better, and we got it done."
Arguments against the bill ranged from financial burdens on business to fears that trucks bypassing the tolled highways would congest local roads.
Some lawmakers feared a financial debacle, even invoking the 38 Studios fiasco, in which the failure of former baseball pitcher Curt Schilling's video-game company left Rhode Islanders on the hook for about $100 million.
A supporter of the bill, Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, said the state should not raid educational or social-service budgets to fund bridge repair.
"If we took from education, we'd have $40 million of new roads but the kids wouldn't be able to read the signs," she said.