Rhode Island's truck tolls could burden Connecticut roads

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Rhode Island has moved forward with truck-only tolls, and there's some concern regarding the effects of this decision on truck drivers and the trucking industry in Connecticut.

"We have to remember, trucking is interstate commerce, so you have truck drivers and trucking companies from all over the country that come here," said Joseph Sculley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut. "For many folks, it is probably very possible that you can go around Rhode Island. ... It could mean more traffic on our roads, especially eastern Connecticut, I-395, for example."

In an effort to raise money for RhodeWorks, a statewide infrastructure initiative spearheaded by Gov. Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island passed a bill allowing truck-specific tolls in February 2016.

On Monday, the inaugural two tolls opened.

Both are on Interstate 95, one close to Exit 2 and Hopkinton, and the other near Exit 5 and Exeter, about a 10- to 20-minute drive from North Stonington. The Exit 2 toll charges $3.25, the Exit 5 toll $3.50. The system is electronic, so it doesn't require stopping, and tolls are paid through E-ZPass or bills sent by mail.

Over the next year and a half, Rhode Island plans to add 12 more tolling places to the two already up and running and anticipates the tolls will generate $450 million during a 10-year period.

David Roche, the managing director of Jewelers Shipping Association in Cranston, R.I., and officials from other Rhode Island trucking companies told the Providence Journal in 2016 that Interstates 395 and 84 in Connecticut would be common alternative options for drivers who wish to avoid the tolls.

A statement from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation supports the state's new tolls.

"RIDOT is implementing tractor-trailer only tolling because trucks cause the greatest amount of damage to our roads and bridges and yet pay a disproportionately small share for the upkeep and repair of those roads," the statement read. "Other vehicle owners are shouldering these costs. ... Tolling revenue will provide a reliable, dedicated source of funding to repair our crumbling bridges for the benefit of all."

At American Auto Stop, a truck stop and rest area in North Stonington minutes away from the Rhode Island border, drivers sounded off against the tolls, voicing their surprise at seeing the toll cameras and discussing the possibility of avoiding them.

"I didn't know about it, I never read about it," said Osmond Smith, a driver based in Virginia who sometimes traverses the Rhode Island/Connecticut border. "When I saw it, it was shocking to me. There are tolls in other states, but I never see trucks-only. Do truckers make too much money, or what?"

When there's enough time for him to do so, Smith plans to skip the tolls by using different routes.

"To be honest with you, me? I will be bypassing it," he said.

Christopher Owens, who lives in Philadelphia but often drives on the East Coast, said he viewed the tolls as prejudicial.

"I saw that sign, 'Tractor-trailer tolls begin tonight,' and I said, 'What the hell they mean by that?'" Owens said. "Why would they focus only on trucks? As if we're making a lot of money. In today's economy, we're not. Granted, I don't pay that toll, it goes to the company's expense, but from an economic standpoint, from a political standpoint, any tolls should affect any and all drivers."

A truck and rest stop off Exit 5B in West Greenwich, R.I., is only 15 minutes from the North Stonington stop. Depending on which direction a truck driver is coming from, the stop is either immediately before the recently installed toll cameras or immediately after.

Drivers on the Rhode Island side of the border voiced opinions similar to those in Connecticut, saying that soon the tolls will be too numerous to bypass.

"If you're gonna toll one, you should toll them all," said Frank Rulison, a driver from upstate New York who works for a company in Indiana and travels through Connecticut and Rhode Island at least once a week. "It's getting hard to bypass the tolls; they're everywhere. We skip New York whenever possible. We can skip the tolls in Rhode Island. We can go around them."

The trucking industry and local and national trucking advocacy groups also have been vocal in their opposition to the tolls. This includes the MTAC, a nonprofit "trade association representing the commercial trucking industry in the State of Connecticut," according to its Facebook page.

A common sentiment in the trucking industry and among truck drivers is that the tolls are simply unfair.

"I think it's discriminatory," Sculley said. "It's singling out one very small class of highway and road users to pay for the entire thing. It's not a good approach."

Sculley disagreed with the RIDOT's claims that trucks cause more harm to roads than other vehicles and the trucking industry does not pay a fair share to support infrastructure work.

According to the American Transportation Institute, a major transportation researcher connected to American Trucking Associations, the trucking industry paid about $281 million in state and federal roadway taxes in Connecticut in 2016. That's 32 percent of taxes owed by Connecticut drivers, even though trucks constitute only 5 percent of the total miles traveled by vehicles in the state, according to the data. Comparable data for Rhode Island was not immediately available.

Charles St. Martin, RIDOT's chief public affairs officer, says he is aware of concerns from the trucking industry but thinks diversion into Connecticut will be minimal. He stands by RIDOT's statement that trucks cause more harm to Rhode Island roads than any other vehicles.

"RIDOT has been monitoring diversion since tractor-trailer only tolling has started; including checking with Connecticut," St. Martin wrote in an email. "We are not aware of any diversion in Connecticut, but will continue to monitor and coordinate as needed."

With more tolls in Rhode Island, Connecticut, which has no tolls and already is dealing with considerable out-of-state traffic, could see that traffic increase.

Since tolls in Connecticut were discontinued in the 1980s, state residents and officials have debated bringing them back. Republicans argue tolls are yet another tax in a tax-heavy state; Democrats see them as a source of revenue for infrastructure projects.

A bill advocating for a study of and plan for tolls in the state, which then would have been voted on by the General Assembly in 2019, stalled in May.


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