Hearings focus on environmental impacts of truck toll gantries
To fulfill the requirements of the law, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) will host public sessions regarding its recently released Environmental Assessment (EA) for 10 new toll gantry locations across Rhode Island.
On July 27 at 6 p.m., comment sessions will be held at Toll Gate High School, Mount Pleasant High School, and Central Falls High School. The Department of Transportation will solicit public comments on the Environment Assessment document publicly released on July 12th, which details plans to construct ten new toll gantries in Warwick, Providence, Pawtucket, Cranston, Johnston, Cumberland, East Providence, Lincoln, and North Smithfield.
These new tolls will be known as Tolls 3, 4 and 6 through 13, and will be erected on I-95, I-195, I-295, US Route 6, and RI Route 146. The new gantries will toll only large trucks.
On July 12, the EA was published to RIDOT’s official website, www.dot.ri.gov, as well as displayed in public venues in libraries and town halls in close proximity to the proposed tolling locations. A total of 29 towns had the EA displayed in public buildings, located in both Rhode Island and in Massachusetts. Making the EA available to the public and arranging for comments to be conveyed is required by law.
The comments and concerns presented at the comment periods will be incorporated into the EA after the hearings have been conducted. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will then examine the comments and determine if public concerns are valid enough to require an Environmental Impact Statement to be published. Alternatively, if no drastic impacts to the environment are acknowledged after the public comments have been examined, the report will instead note that no significant impact has been found.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), in the interest of enhancing the quality of the environment, requires by law for an Environmental Assessment to be produced and provided for public observation and review whenever a large-scale construction project, such as constructing the gantries, is planned.
RIDOT’s EA document provides a breakdown of the how the construction of the gantries would impact local environments, and a detailed description of the consequences of such a project. Discussed in the EA are potential changes in air quality, noise and vibrations, availability of farmland and groundwater resources, and the survival of surrounding wildlife, all of which could be influenced by the construction of the new toll gantries. These potential impacts will be the topic of discussion during the comment period, where citizens can offer their perspectives on how they feel the gantries will affect the environment.
Lisbeth Pettengill, Director of Communications at RIDOT, reports that the Department plans to have the gantries installed over a period of 18 months. The gantries are planned to have completed their construction by the end of 2019.
There are currently two gantries in place; they are both located on I-95 and began collecting tolls for large trucks in June.
The gantries planned for construction will run independently of one another. Each gantry is intended to assist with the reconstruction or renovation of an individual bridge. The toll charged by each gantry will vary depending on the toll location; the fees will range from $2 to $9.50. The median fee will be $3.50, with a daily cap of $40 regardless of how many tolls a truck passes through. Tolls were determined based on the state’s financial needs for bridge repairs.
According to Pettengill, the gantry project is part of RhodeWorks, an infrastructure repair plan initiated in 2016 that plans to repair Rhode Island’s bridges. As Rhode Island ranks last in the nation when it comes to the quality of bridge conditions, improving the quality of the state’s bridges is viewed as imperative by RIDOT.
However, the new tolls have been the subject of controversy among trucking associations at both the state and national level.
On July 10th, 2018, a lawsuit was filed against Peter Alviti, the Director of RIDOT, by the American Trucking Association. Alongside Cumberland Farms, M&M Transport Services, and New England Motor Freight, the American Trucking Association will attempt to prove in a Federal Court that the tolls are unconstitutional, and will seek to declare an injunction against any future enforcement of the toll system in the future.
Christopher Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, explained the issues and complaints that served as the motivation behind the recent lawsuit. In a recent interview, he said that many trucking companies no longer feel welcome in Rhode Island and are reassessing their routes in order to avoid the state entirely.
He states that the perspective posed by trucking companies is more “humble and realistic” than that of RIDOT’s, and that he is confident that the constitution is on the side of truckers and their companies.
Maxwell also explained that trucking institutions no longer have an “appetite for compromise.” When their complaints were brought before RIDOT in the past, Maxwell says that they were marginalized and “laughed at” by officials.
“It doesn’t matter if they make ten times the revenue that’s projected; it’s still irrelevant to the legality of the tolls,” Maxwell said.
The new tolls have been accused of discriminating against large trucks, who would be the only vehicles subjected to the new toll fees once the gantries are implemented.
According to data provided by RIDOT, the majority of structural damage done to bridges by vehicles is inflicted by large commercial trucks. Rhode Island is currently one of the only states in the northeast that does not charge user fees to large trucks, according to the RIDOT. The decision reached by RIDOT was to begin charging large trucks in order to fund the repairs they necessitate. Existing legislation expressly prohibits charging fees for cars and smaller trucks.
The money gathered in fees at each toll will be used to fund repairs for the individual bridge associated with the toll. The budget for the RhodeWorks project, approximately $4.9 billion, will be 10 percent funded through the tolling program.
Kapsch TrafficCom will construct and maintain the electronic tolls for a period of ten years. Tolls are able to be paid with credit cards and cash, while E-Z Pass users can be billed through their pass. A thirty-day grace period is allotted for drivers to pay their fine, either online through www.ezpassritba.com/ridot, by mail, or at a RIBTA customer service center. Failure to pay the fine within the allotted time constitutes a violation. All fees are collected by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Association.
Comments posed regarding the EA will be considered by RIDOT until August 11.