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Op-Ed by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), Deputy Majority Leader
Rhode Island has the least-safe bridges and roads in America—visible to anyone traveling the state. A thriving Rhode Island economy is predicated on investing in infrastructure. That’s how we grow the economy, by creating more taxpayers and not more taxes.
[contextly_auto_sidebar] Over the last 10 months, I’ve listened to many constituents and heard dozens of hours of testimony in the House Finance Committee from both sides. The trucking industry is split on this. There are many who testified in support. The Chamber of Commerce, AAA, Providence Journal, Grow Smart and many in the business community recognize that a reliable and safe infrastructure is the No. 1 reason that a company would come to this state.
I am a fiscal conservative and the governor’s original RhodeWorks plan had too much borrowing. But a lot has changed since the House put the brakes on it in June.
First, for the first time in 15 years, Congress finally passed a five-year, $300 billion transportation bill — the FAST Act. Rhode Island can leverage the federal dollars for GARVEE bonds. This revised plan cuts debt service by 65 percent, is less risky, involves less borrowing, fixes more than 150 structurally deficient bridges and repairs another 500 bridges to bring us to 90 percent sufficiency in nine years.
Federal dollars must be used on federal roads. Gantries can be put only on bridges over federal highways — not local roads. The toll is limited to Class 8 — heavy tractor trailers — not landscaping trucks, rubbish trucks, dump trucks, pickup trucks, and NO CARS. Page 8 of the bill clearly states, COLLECTION OF TOLLS ON PASSENGER CARS IS PROHIBITED. Only a statewide referendum that voters approve can EVER put a toll on a car.
Many say “raise the gas tax.” It would have to be raised considerably, and Rhode Islanders already pay more than Massachusetts residents. It’s unfair to take money from family budgets so 18-wheelers can drive Rhode Island roads without paying a $3 toll. A higher gas or diesel tax could also drive gas stations out of business.
Seventy percent of the vehicle-related damage to Rhode Island roads and bridges comes from these heavy, 18-wheel trucks, but they pay only 20 percent in fees toward repair. If you use it, you should pay for it.
Every state from Maine to Maryland tolls these heavy trucks except Rhode Island and Connecticut, and Connecticut has pending legislation to reinstate tolls. Rhode Island taxpayers are already paying for the repair of roads and bridges in all the other states in the region that toll trucks.
I get that no one trusts DOT— me neither. That’s why as a member of the House Finance Committee, I strongly suggested a revised bill that has OVERSIGHT. Page 11 clearly states DOT must provide quarterly reports to legislators and post them online for taxpayers. This includes contracts, completion dates, costs, how many employees, and how many of them are Rhode Islanders, and conformity with rules that 10 percent of the value of the bid go to women- and minority-owned companies.
As for Ocean State Job Lot, the governor is working on legislation to help Class 8 Rhode Island truckers. But keep in mind, OSJL, which does over $670 million a year in sales, has received over $1 million dollars in sales tax exemptions through the Project Status Program, $3 million a year in PILOT since 2004, and $200 million invested in state and federal dollars (taxpayer money) for Route 403 for highway, overpasses, and utilities to get directly to its Quonset location. We have now learned that despite prior threats, Ocean State Job Lot indeed will be expanding in Rhode Island.
I am honored to serve; jobs, the economy, and public safety are the cornerstone for my decisions. This plan adds thousands of jobs in the private sector, improves the safety of roads and bridges, and makes Rhode Island a more attractive place for all business to grow. It’s time to believe that Rhode Island can transform its economy to be more like neighboring Massachusetts.
Rep. Deborah Ruggiero represents District 74 in Jamestown and Middletown and serves on the House Finance Committee.