To Toll or Not to Toll, That is the Governor’s Question (Providence Business News)

As Rhode Island’s new RhodeWorks infrastructure improvement program is implemented in the coming months, the anticipated costs of a planned truck-only, toll-financed infrastructure program has generated an important set of questions and concerns about the state’s future business climate. 

Earlier this year, it may have seemed expedient to fund new road improvements solely on the backs of trucking, but the state’s elected officials seemed to have forgotten that all commercial trucks have a customer destination. Trucks are businesses that serve business, including Rhode Island’s manufacturers, which account for 8 percent of the total gross state product.

With an emphasis on economic growth and innovation, it is clear that Rhode Island’s economic development proponents would like manufacturers to have a bigger chunk of the state’s output. Manufacturing jobs are higher paid than other industries and produce economic value to communities — for every dollar spent in manufacturing, another $1.40 is added to the economy. However, the truck-only tolls put the state’s competitiveness in question because Rhode Island is not just competing with its Northeast neighbors; it’s competing with the nation’s Southeast and other regions where transportation costs can be more competitive. Sadly, Rhode Island is consistently near the bottom when it comes to national competitiveness scorecards.

One well-publicized analysis showed that 60 percent of the state’s truck traffic is from out of state and the remainder in-state. This calculated divide has provided RhodeWorks supporters the ammunition to defend the truck toll as something to be paid mostly by commercial drivers just passing through. Regardless of who is in or out of state, that toll revenue to be paid by interstate trucking and other heavy-duty haulers will have supply chain impacts that make manufacturing and businesses located in Rhode Island less competitive. The punitive costs imposed on trucking, if tolling is carried out as planned, will continue to harm the state’s overall business climate. No doubt, this is a tax on manufacturing and transportation. For some, it will be a question of why even bother with Rhode Island altogether.

The quest to move the state away from its abysmally low bridge condition ranking of 50th in the nation is a priority that any reform-minded elected official should embrace. Our organizations are advocates for robust bridge and road funding and believe that more resources from all levels of government as well as the private sector need to be brought to the forefront to address our nation’s well-documented and mounting infrastructure challenges. Congestion or woefully inadequate infrastructure cannot constrain a nation on the move. We are the voices for highway users and proponents of transportation policies that support economic growth, not stifle it.

Gov. Gina Raimondo can and should seek a revised plan that addresses the state’s infrastructure problems without chilling the business climate. The fact is, Rhode Island’s infrastructure did not deteriorate overnight; it is the product of poor governance over many years and the result of shortsighted priorities that did not focus on the future. And while some fully embraced the RhodeWorks legislation to support construction jobs, the precedent to toll only trucks in a statewide road improvement program that includes parts of the federal Interstate Highway System does not go unnoticed by our members who make decisions every day about where to travel, where to locate or even what locations to keep open. To toll or not to toll, that is Raimondo’s ultimate question.

While setting up gantries and collecting tolls only on large trucks at 14 different points seem like an easy way to pass through the cost to build and maintain highway infrastructure, there is no simple solution to Rhode Island’s complex infrastructure problems. Unfortunately, impacted transportation users and manufacturers have been marginalized in the pursuit of the RhodeWorks program. The courts could be an eventual next step to help settle questions concerning economic harm, potential violations of interstate commerce or process, but it’s an option that we hope can be avoided. The poor condition of Rhode Island’s infrastructure is nothing new—it’s a half-century problem that previous state leaders have ignored. The governor deserves credit for attempting to tackle the state’s infrastructure challenges, but she needs a new plan with all of her key stakeholders onboard.

Gregory M. Cohen is president and CEO of American Highway Users Alliance and Robyn M. Boerstling is vice president, infrastructure, innovation and human resources policy of the National Association of Manufacturers.

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