In the never-ending quest to solve infrastructure funding problems, one state has come up with a highly controversial, and I must say, completely irresponsible, plan. Unfortunately, that state is my beloved Rhode Island - the place of my birth and the place where I spent the majority of my life growing into adulthood.
Rhode Island is known for many things in our nation’s history. It was the first state to declare independence from England. It was founded on the principle of religious freedom (something, by the way, we seem to be losing sight of as religious tolerance slips down the list of freedoms we as a nation hold so dearly) and was the last to sign the Declaration of Independence as its leaders objected to the lack of a Bill of Rights. Once the Bill of Rights was added, Rhode Island signed on.
The state is also among the nation’s leaders in corrupt politicians per capita (OK, this is certainly an unscientific poll, but Buddy Cianci was elected mayor of Providence to serve two different stints totaling more than 21 years despite twice going to jail; that should give an indication of how Rhode Islanders feel about its leaders). You can also find a Dunkin’ Donuts every half-mile. That might be an exaggeration, but there are certainly a lot of them for such a small state.
But here is one area that Rhode Island should not be a leader in: truck tolls.
Gov. Gina Raimondo has proposed a new toll only on commercial vehicles. Part of a $700 million RhodeWorks plan, the governor’s proposal is being called a “user fee” and would apply to commercial trucks Class 6 and higher likely starting in mid-2016, according to WPRI TV 12.
According to the state, 22.7% the bridges in the state are structurally deficient. The plan, part of a larger 10-year, $4.8 billion RhodeWorks initiative, would bring in an estimated $100 million per year, officials said.
To put it simply, this plan stinks.
“We were not built into this process and it is clear the administration has not considered the impact this will have on both the trucking industry and the price of consumer goods in Rhode Island,” said Christopher Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Assn. “We all believe Rhode Island’s roads and bridges need to be improved and we want to be part of the solution, but to unfairly target one industry is simply not an equitable plan.”
The genesis of this plan goes back to years of siphoning off fuel taxes (intended to pay for road upkeep) in the state and putting that money into the general fund. One of the longstanding jokes in Rhode Island is that the roads are littered with potholes that the state refuses to fix because they are officially known as “traffic control devices.”
It’s cheaper than actually monitoring vehicle speeds.
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“The Rhode Island Trucking Association understands the state’s funding predicament with regard to infrastructure maintenance and repairs,” said Maxwell. “This organization is willing to pay its fair share to assist the governor, but tolling is not the answer.”
To show how out of touch Raimondo and state officials are with reality, the governor told The Day of New London, “The fact of the matter is, those are the trucks that cause 90-plus percent of the damage to our highways and bridges. They also benefit the most from well-maintained bridges and roads.”
She seems to forget that truck traffic is 1, only a small portion of the traffic that traverses Rhode Island roads on a daily basis, and 2, and most importantly, largely responsible for the economy of Rhode Island, which has lagged behind the rest of the nation in its recovery from the recession.
Charging trucks more will increase the cost of goods in the state without a corresponding increase in salaries for its residents.
“The governor mentioned 18-wheelers at her press conference, but this proposal greatly impacts all kinds of trucking including delivery trucks. Small business owners will be forced to pass increased costs onto their consumers, as they will have no other choice. To our knowledge, every other state that the governor cited in her press release that has tolls also includes passenger vehicles. This type of inequitable taxation will only hinder economic growth,” added Maxwell. “We also are disappointed the governor has offered no specific tolling locations or costs associated with her proposal.”
In the end, this proposal reeks of typical Rhode Island politics (and how politics in general is moving in this country). Unable to find a solution to a problem, we push through an unfair stop-gap that targets a specific group, in this case, trucking companies.
The thinking goes: Rhode Island residents don’t want to see their taxes go up, so why not tax trucks. They’re big, they’re dirty, and they’re unsafe. Residents will go for that.
As a native Rhode Islander, here is my advice: Residents need to speak up and demand that the state’s politicians and Gov. Raimondo come up with an equitable plan to fund the roads, one that also creates jobs and improves the economy because the next proposal to come down the pike might tax you.