The following set of Frequently Asked Questions addresses many concerns Rhode Islanders may have regarding RIDOT's funding limitations and the proposal of establishing tolling in two new locations in the State.
Why is RIDOT exploring tolling?
One can point to a combination of factors. Nationally, sufficient funds have not been allocated to improving roads and bridges. The system for funding transportation projects has changed very little, and the Federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gas has not changed since 1993. In Rhode Island, the State gas tax of 33 cents per gallon at the pump has not changed much either, rising only 4 cents per gallon since 1994.
Now this fixed level of revenue is not fixed; itís actually declining. The recession, surging gas prices and the fact that cars are becoming more fuel-efficient all lead to people buying less gas, and therefore, paying less tax. Gas tax revenue in Rhode Island alone has dropped $2.6 million in the just the past year.
Two separate efforts to study transportation funding problems Ė the Governorís Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation Funding in 2008 and the Senate Commission on Sustainable Transportation Funding in 2011 Ė both concluded that Rhode Island has serious problems funding its road and bridge system. Both recommended the exploration of additional sources of revenue and other means of funding transportation improvements. Tolling was identified as an option in both reports.
But doesnít the Department already get a large portion of its money from the Federal government for road improvements?
Yes, a majority of RIDOTís projects are paid for with funding from the Federal government covering 80 percent of the costs and the state matching the remaining 20 percent. But remember, due to the recession, along with improved mileage performance per vehicle, gas tax revenues nationwide are down.
The net amount of funds coming to Rhode Island has remained fairly stable, however, the cost of doing business has not. In that same nearly 20-year period since the Federal gas tax was last increased, the cost of highway and bridge construction has risen 106 percent. This compares to an increase of 55 percent for the overall general rate of inflation for the same period of time.
Further clouding the issues is the lack of a long-term Federal highway bill. Congress recently passed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), which replaced the former highway bill. Traditionally highway bills provide six years of funding, providing states the long-term assurance that funds will be available. With that assurance known, RIDOT can better plan for and commit resources for road and bridge projects. While MAP-21 is a two-year bill, it provides only level funding.
We all vote on a transportation bond every two years, doesnít that cover the shortfall? Canít you borrow more?
This is another part of the transportation funding problem, not a solution. Yes, it has been vitally important over the years that voters have approved transportation bonds. Without that money, RIDOT would not have the local match required for access to Federal funding. But continued borrowing has driven our debt to the point where half of RIDOTís gas tax revenue has to be spent on debt.
The level of spending on debt service was on track to reach nearly 70 percent of gas tax revenue in the next three years if Governor Chafee and the General Assembly in 2011 had not passed critical reforms to put Rhode Island on a path to get off its dependency on debt. With registration fee increases and allocations from the Rhode Island Capital Plan Fund (RICAP), dollars will be set aside so the State no longer will have to ask voters to approve a transportation bond each election the year.
The legacy of borrowing does have long-term implications. Each year through 2033, RIDOT must set aside millions of dollars for debt service payments for projects long since completed. Even with important changes to eliminate future borrowing, it will take decades to pay down the accumulated debt. Additional funding sources, such as tolling revenues, will give the Department more money to put into projects as it eliminates prior debt.
Instead of tolls, arenít there other areas you can cut back on?
RIDOT maintains 3,000 lane-miles of roads and highways in Rhode Island, as well as more than 750 bridges. The Departmentís staff has dwindled by 60 percent in the last 30 years, yet the miles of roads and numbers of bridges have not changed.
The Department has used innovative and accelerated methods of construction and incentive-based contracting methods, adopted the use of better-quality materials that last longer and require less maintenance, tightened its inspection and oversight procedures, and taken many other steps to minimize the cost of projects and our operations.
RIDOT has done more with less, but its resources are stretched too thin. Needed maintenance gets deferred, projects get delayed due to a lack of funding and programs aimed at improving traffic flow get shelved.
If tolling was approved, where would the new toll be?
RIDOT is considering tolling at two locations, both close to the stateís borders. One would be in southern Rhode Island close to the Connecticut border, and the other in the East Bay, on Route 24 near the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Massachusetts border.
But didn't the Federal government reject RIDOT's tolling proposal for I-95?
RIDOT applied for one of three openings in the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, created by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. North Carolina was awarded the final slot in this program. Missouri and Virginia previously had been selected for the other two opportunities.
Under the current Federal highway law, MAP-21, there are no provisions for tolling programs. RIDOT stands ready with its tolling application should one of the three approved states withdraw or fail to go forward, or if changes are made in the law that would include another pilot program or another opportunity to pursue tolling.
Isnít this just a way to impose an additional tax on Rhode Island residents?
A great deal of the traffic at both proposed tolling locations is from out-of-state. Given Rhode Islandís small size, the likelihood of travelers stopping to purchase gas here is slim. Without tolls, this would be their only opportunity (in the form of the gas tax on their purchase) to contribute to the cost of maintaining Rhode Islandís roads and bridges. More than 80 percent of trucks and 60 percent of cars traveling on I-95 in the southern portion Rhode Island are registered elsewhere. In the East Bay, 35 percent of vehicles crossing the Sakonnet River bridge are from out-of-state. Combined, all these people traveling into and through Rhode Island, placing wear and tear on our highways and bridges, are not contributing a cent toward upkeep or repair.
The current tolling system for the Pell (Newport) Bridge creates inequity for Aquidneck Island. Travelers from the west heading to Aquidneck Island not only pay to maintain the Pell Bridge, but the Mount Hope Bridge as well. The Sakonnet River Bridge carries more traffic daily than the Pell and Mount Hope bridges combined, but those coming from the north on either bridge donít pay any tolls.
What plans does the State have for the money it would generate?
RIDOT foresees using revenue from the proposed I-95 tolls to bring over 43 miles of I-95 and nearly 24 miles of I-295 into a state of good repair, fixing structurally deficient bridges, and making safety and efficiency improvements in locations such as the I-95 and Route 146 merge. Specific areas RIDOT is examining for improvements include the Providence Viaduct, a 1,300-foot span carrying the highest volume of traffic of any highway in Rhode Island, and the I-95/Route 4 interchange, a primary access point to South County, the Stateís largest industrial park, and some of Rhode Islandís primary tourism attractions.
For the East Bay, tolling revenue would be directed toward maintenance of the new Sakonnet River Bridge as well as the other three large bay-crossing bridges linking Aquidneck Island (Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth) and Conanicut Island (Jamestown). If approved, RIDOT would transfer ownership and maintenance responsibilities for the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA).
How much would the toll cost?
Ongoing studies for the Sakonnet tolling facility would determine a rate structure. The RITBA provides an extensive list of frequently asked questions regarding a proposed toll at the Sakonnet River Bridge on its website.
A similar study would need to be performed for an I-95 tolling facility before a rate could be determined.
Can RIDOT just do this? Who has to approve this?
Environmental assessments are under way for the Sakonnet River Bridge toll facility. An assessment of the proposed I-95 toll facility is pending Federal approval of tolling on the Interstate. The stateís can currently collect tolls only through the RITBA. In the 2012 legislative season, the General Assembly approved the transfer of the Sakonnet River Bridge to the RITBA.
Any new pilot programs for Interstate tolling likely would be as competitive as the last one. The more prepared Rhode Island is for the next program, the better chance it stands of being selected.
Over in the East Bay, Rhode Island cannot institute a toll once construction of the new Sakonnet River Bridge is completed.
Wouldnít adding toll booths on these roads just contribute to congestion? What about safety? Didnít Connecticut officials remove toll booths in the 1980s because they were dangerous?
Tolling technology has come a long way in the past 30 years. RIDOT envisions that all through traffic would use what is called open road tolling, where there are no traditional toll booths. Drivers using an E-ZPass transponder would simply drive under an overhead structure at normal highway speeds and the toll would be recorded. Such a system is now in place at the busy Hampton Tolls on I-95 in southern New Hampshire, where past toll-related congestion has been eliminated with the introduction of open road tolling.
RIDOT is considering other options which may include the use of tolling technology that takes a photograph of a vehicle’s license plate and sends a bill to the owner of that car or truck if it does not have a transponder. RIDOT may also make use of land along the highway corridors to create an exit where cash customers would enter a traditional toll booth facility, pay, and return to the highway.