Speaker Nicolas Mattiello has indicated that he may not include tolls for trucks on Rhode Island highways. I’d like to summarize the debate and highlight some ways that Rhode Island can move forward with reasonable compromises on this issue.
Singling out one industry
The trucking industry has been remarkably successful with a talking point: they say that tolling trucks is “singling out one industry” for a special charge. This raises the hackles of business-oriented members of the Assembly.
The truth of the matter is that truckers are being singled out: for an unusually large subsidy. Director Peter Alviti of RIDOT spoke Monday night for several hours at the Finance Committee meeting, and one of the most important points he made is that trucks cause around 3/4 of the damage on roads, but only pay 19% of the costs of upkeeping them. With new tolls, that number would double, but essentially trucks will still be paying fifty cents to the dollar for the damage they leave behind them.
Some members of the Finance Committee were concerned at what it would mean if trucks decided to circumvent Rhode Island for through-trips. While it’s always smart to think about how a particular tax or fee might be evaded, in this case the worry doesn’t make sense. The truckers are like customers who show up to your lemonade stand: each cup is costing you a dollar to make, but you charge them $0.50 each time. This is a financial loss. You can’t make up that loss on volume, as any fifth grader could tell you. And so the only trucks we should really want in our state (at least at the present toll rates) are those that directly serve our households or businesses. And try as they might, truckers who are coming to directly serve us can’t avoid the tolls.
Fiscally-conservative urbanist blog Strong Towns talks very clearly in this article about why “the real welfare Cadillacs have 18 wheels.”
Why are we bonding for infrastructure?
A serious concern which may be holding up tolls are questions about whether we should be bonding (taking on public debt) to fund infrastructure projects. The tolls raise $700 million plus $200 million for debt service to repay the bonds. Concerns about bonding were raised by left (Rep. Tanzi) and right (Rep. Patricia Morgan), but were generally raised more intensely by conservative members of the Finance Committee.
Director Alviti pointed out that the long-term cost of our bridges falling into disrepair and needing to be completely replaced is much higher than the $200 million in debt service. Of course, said the director, there is a cost to financing these projects. But the overall net effect is a savings for taxpayers. Alviti used a metaphor over and over: fixing a road or bridge now is akin to replacing the broken hinge on a door. Waiting for perfect financing is like letting the door fall off the hinges and break entirely.
I agree with Director Alviti’s metaphor, but would like to expand on it. Debt service to help us fix our projects now is somewhat akin to fixing a hinge, instead of replacing the door. The difference is that in Rhode Island, we have a house that has too many doors.
With 4:7 dollars from the tolls going to capital expenses for the 6/10 Connector, the state should be giving serious consideration to whether we’re overbuilt in our highway system. Already, I’ve been very encouraged (and, frankly, surprised) at the outpouring of bipartisan support for exploring a boulevard on 6/10 to save money. A boulevard would be better for Providence and Cranston neighborhoods, would be better for our environment, but would also greatly reduce costs. This morning, Rep. Patricia Morgan tweeted me to signal her support, joining a consensus that includes West Side Councilman Bryan Principe, UNITE-HERE local 217, Environmental Committee Chair Art B. Handy, Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry, and Rep. Daniel Reilly. You really could not find a more politically diverse group of people who agree on this issue. As Speaker Mattiello explores whether to continue to subsidize the trucking industry, he should address the concerns of fiscal conservatives by including language in the toll bill requiring RIDOT to explore reduction of highway capacity as a cost-saving option.
Contact the Speaker
It needs to be clear to Speaker Mattiello that Rhode Islanders expect him to charge a fair(er) price for truck use of our highways. To not do so is to put the cost on the backs of other road users, and possibly leave our roads in a condition that is embarrassing and unsafe. But Mattiello should address the concerns of fiscal conservatives as well, mandating a reduction of costs by an over-stretched RIDOT.
Fiscal conservatives and environmental/social justice liberals have a budding consensus that part of the problem with our road system is that we’re spending too much money for bad outcomes. Addressing this is a way forward: The Speaker can reduce the overall amount of money needed to be raised, thus lowering tolls. Conservatives will feel that they’ve had a victory. Liberals, too, will be happy. And our state’s infrastructure needs will be addressed in a way that gives all sides part of what they want.