Thursday 6 October 2011

Rhode Island seeking to toll existing interstate - without Federal support

The State of Rhode Island wants to introduce a toll, on an existing interstate, contrary to the declared policy of the Obama Administration, which only supports tolls for additional capacity.

Why does it want to do this? Because it claims that without a toll, I-95 through the state will deteriorate to such a point that it will risk the robustness of the network (as there are bridges needing replacement).

The Huffington Post reports that despite the Federal reluctance, the state believes that it has found a loophole. "A 1998 pilot program created by Congress would let states put tolls on old roads, and Rhode Island hopes to become the first state to take advantage of that provision. So far, the federal government haven't ruled whether it is eligible."

The proposal is a toll of around $3 to generate $50 million a year to support reconstruction of the route, and the associated I-295.
Tollroadsnews has an excellent article summarising the proposed works.  It is not proposed to be a PPP, but to be operated by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

WNTH reports the toll booths could be put between exits 1 and 2 on I-95.  One motorist said "I know lot of back roads around here I'd avoid it at any cost".

Clearly, if it proceeds it will risk considerable political opposition locally. According to the Huffington Post: "When Brown University polled the state's voting public in March of this year, 72.5 percent were opposed to the idea".  Yet if people are also opposed to increasing fuel taxes, then what choice is there?

It is easy to presume that the Federal Highway Administration may say no, for fairly obvious reasons.  Yet, if the condition of the road is how it is described and the Federal Government doesn't provide the funds necessary to pay for its renewal, then the more fundamental question needs to be asked.  If the Federal Government wont fund it, and wont allow the state to toll to pay for it, will it expect the state to pay for it by other means (e.g. fuel tax increases that people out of state, who rely on these highways, can easily avoid) or should the route deteriorate to the point of putting it in jeopardy?

The logic of tolling this route is because Rhode Island is the smallest state in the USA, and the length of the roads concerned are short (70km on the I-95), so efforts to raise taxes from Rhode Island residents will not be equitable, whether fuel, vehicle or other taxes.

My suspicion is the Federal Government will magically find the funds - but that is not a sustainable solution.  There is a chance to make this a prototype for a new approach to tolling that can provide a partial solution to the highway funding problem across the US - if only politicians can get out of their short term "how do I win votes the easiest way" approach.

Below is an interesting TV news item about the proposal:

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