2009-01-15 / Front Page

New road tolls eyed by state

By Sam Bari

Rhode Island transportation offi cials are considering adding new tolls as a way of raising money to pay for maintenance of state roads and bridges.

State Department of Transportation Director Michael P. Lewis on Wednesday announced that the DOT will conduct a joint toll study with the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority. The group will evaluate placing tolls on Interstate 95 and the Sakonnet River Bridge. He said that the Mt. Hope Bridge is also a consideration for tolls.

A Blue Ribbon State Transportation Panel report recommended the study, Lewis said at the monthly meeting of RITBA board of directors. The panel was formed by Governor Carcieri to study Rhode Island roads and bridges.

Approximately $640 million per year is needed to maintain the highway system in Rhode Island, according to the report. Current state and federal highway and bridge funding provides about $354 million, leaving a deficit of $285 million. The gap continues to widen as the cost of construction and materials increases.

However, the state and federal funds are for new construction only. The federal government does pay for highway and bridge maintenance. The 773 bridges across the state are now 50 years old, Lewis said. The state cannot afford to replace the bridges even with federal money.

The only sources of funds for maintenance come from the 30- cent state gasoline tax and bond issues, Lewis said. Consequently, tolls on Interstate 95 and the heav- ily traveled Sakonnet River Bridge are being considered.

An increase in the gas tax and licensing fees are also being eyed, Lewis said. "Massachusetts will soon double its gasoline tax and raise it to 50 cents a gallon," he added.

Lewis said tolls are collected on Interstate 95 in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. "Eighty percent of the commercial traffic and 60 percent of private traffic on I-95 in Rhode Island is from out of state vehicles," he said.

By placing tolls on the heavily traveled road, the burden of maintenance would fall on drivers from other states for using Rhode Island highways, Lewis said.

Lewis said licensing and vehicle registry fees presently go into the general fund. If the fees were raised, a good portion of the monies could be put toward drastically needed highway maintenance.

"A 10-year program to improve the infrastructure would cost $300 million per year. Unless these maintenance issues are addressed, they will only get worse," he said. "That is why we are considering these revenue sources. Before we do anything, I want to be sure that we have comprehensive, accurate information."

With RIDOT and RITBA sharing the expenses for the transportation study, Lewis said he was confident that the correct information would be gathered and a satisfactory plan could be worked out.

Lewis said the federal stimulus package may distribute $30 billion in federal funds to all of the states. However, Rhode Island's share is only .5 percent, or $150 million, only 10 percent of the state's funding needs for two years.

In other business RITBA Executive Director Buddy Croft said that the EZPass program is working well. "Not that the program has not had challenges. We have had many. But we've managed to work then out. I think the staff and management has put forth Herculean efforts to get the program up and running. Presently lanes 10 and 3 are open. Lanes 9 and 4, and 11 and 2 will be opened by next week," he said.

Croft said that 23,600 transponders have been sold and 16,000 accounts have been opened. The RITBA office in Jametown has been receiving 500 to 600 applicants per day. The newly opened office in Newport has been averaging 100 per day.

"We are impacting a system that processed 10 million transactions per year," Croft said. "Converting the token system to an electronic system could not be done without challenges. I think the staff has done an incredible job of handling the issues that have confronted them."

RITBA Chairman David Darlington thanked the staff and management for their efforts.

"I think we underestimated the number of transponders we thought we'd sell,' Darlington said. "It will probably be more like 40,000 if sales keep the present pace."

Darlington said that some people have had problems with the gates. They approach the gates going too fast and then they have to stop and wait for the gates to open. Darlington explained that the gates are designed for traffic to approach and move through at 10 miles per hour, he said.

The gates are there is to slow traffic for safety reasons, he added.

Darlington said that the gates also keep cheaters from going through without paying.

"We are going to phase the token system out cautiously," Darlington said. "We have to take time to inform the public. I'm sure we'll set a date in a couple of months."

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