Tolls are the way to go, says Gov. Raimondo, and we need to have her back on that.
As Gov. Raimondo recently pointed out, Rhode Island has some of the highest per-mile costs for road infrastructure. In addition to that, as I’ve pointed out right here at RI Future, much of that road infrastructure is highway oriented, even in our cities. Providence is among a rogue collection of cities in the Rustbelt Midwest, Texas, and California for its lane-miles of highway infrastructure per capita.
That means that our poorest areas where people often don’t have access to cars are choked by highways, causing air pollution and congestion that would otherwise be avoided with a multimodal system. The costs of this type of highway infrastructure are many orders of magnitude higher than other projects, and also at the same time stand in the way of development in urban areas. These factors act as both a push and pull force against our economic development and climate change goals.
One way Gov. Raimondo has sought to fix the imbalance of spending is to use tolls to provide some of our road funding. I know that there’s going to be lots of howling from all sides, so I want to preempt it and say to the governor, “Thank you! Well done!”
Tolls are not popular on the left or the right. The right, of course, unaware of how socialized and unbalanced policies around driving have become, cries that tolls are a “war on cars“. In Rhode Island, we’ve seen tea party vandalism against toll collection efforts on the Sakonnet Bridge. Sometimes elements of the left don’t understand the issue well either, seeing tolls as a way of stepping away from the responsibility of government to pay directly for infrastructure costs through general funds. I believe both are mistaken.
It’s correct to use government to invest in public infrastructure and lessen inequalities. Road spending is simply the least efficient way to do it. Although all classes of people drive to some extent, the poorest drive the least. Certainly if you want to help the odd person who is poor and happens to drive, there are more direct ways to target the aid. Though road projects cause a blooming of development, the revenue from the development does not add up to enough over the long-term to pay back the costs of the maintenance on infrastructure. Tolls are an equitable way to pay for road infrastructure. Paying for roads in this way also means that the general funds we have can be repurposed to more important and directly progressive goals, like an increased Earned Income Tax Credit in the state.
I call on the governor not only to toll highway-type infrastructure, but also to look carefully at how we can reduce unnecessary road expenditures. We need long distance roads in parts of our state, but our urban areas are far too choked by highways. The Route 10 section of the 6/10 Connector is now the oldest highway in the state, cuts neighborhoods in Providence and Cranston off from one another, makes the Washington Secondary bike path less useful, and prevents development along a prime corridor of urban land. Removing highways like Rt. 10 and building them in less expensive, more multimodal ways would lower our state’s costs, allowing tolls to be less extreme (I think Rt. 6 should go too, but its infrastructure is newer–some of it, in fact, is being replaced at great cost right now–so that may have to wait).
The progressive community needs to put its elbow grease into supporting tolling as one of the tools we use in transportation. It’s up to us to organize and educate constituencies for this, or else the governor’s proposal will fail.