HOPKINTON — Officials in Hopkinton and Richmond and a trucking industry group welcomed the announcement early last week that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation has delayed the opening of new truck tolls on Interstate 95.
The first two of the state’s 14 tolling gantries, one near Mechanic Street in Richmond near the Hopkinton town line and another in Exeter at the Tefft Hill Trail bridges, were scheduled to begin operating by the end of 2017 but are now set to open in February or March 2018.
Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti said the delay amounts to just a couple of months, and that the project continues to move forward. “It’s not like we said ‘let’s postpone anything,’ this is us taking the appropriate amount of time that we need to get the job done,” he said.
Gov. Gina Raymondo has urged the DOT to take the time it needs to obtain the necessary environmental permitting and solicit feedback from the public.
“The governor has instructed us that she’s OK with us taking a bit more time on this in order to make damn sure that when we turn the switch on, it’s absolutely correct,” Alviti said.
The major concern for Richmond and Hopkinton, which have passed resolutions opposing the tolls, is the possibility that tractor-trailers seeking to bypass the tolls will leave I-95 and take Route 3, a secondary road.
On Nov. 1, the DOT released the environmental assessment of the toll gantries, which are described in the report as “toll locations 1 and 2.” The assessment, prepared for the department by the Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. of Boston, concluded that the number of tractor-trailers taking Route 3 to avoid the tolls would increase very slightly and that the effects on local traffic would be minimal. The assessment refers to Route 3 as Diversion Route 1.
“The intersection analyses show that there would only be a slight increase in delay at the study intersections along Diversion Route 1 in both analysis years 2016 and 2040 due to the addition of truck diversion traffic,” the report states. “The increase in delay would be less than one second at either signalized intersection. This slight increase in delay would be imperceptible to the drivers of the route. The roadway segment analyses show an insignificant reduction in average speed (less than 0.5 mph) along Diversion Route 1. This reduction in speed would be imperceptible to the drivers of the route.”
Richmond Town Council President Paul Michaud said he still worried about having more trucks on Route 3. “That can be really heavily traveled,” he said. “It’s a nice road, but it’s curvy and it’s not that wide.”
Hopkinton Town Council President Frank Landolfi noted that there was no way to keep trucks from diverting to Route 3. “It would be difficult to do, but if they only have to go a few exits beyond that, there certainly may be some extra traffic,” he said. “I just think we have to figure it out as it progresses.”
Christopher Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, which has fought the tolls from the beginning, welcomed the delay.
“Our ultimate goal is to postpone it indefinitely, forever,” he said. “Unfortunately, our victory may come at the expense of the taxpayers, who, by virtue of us defeating trucks only, if common sense doesn’t prevail, it will move to all cars. Our victory could well be at the expense of the taxpayers.”
Maxwell said his group still planned to take legal action against the tolls, but would wait until the collections actually begin. “This could be kicked down the road for months, even a year at this stage,” he said. “Ultimately our strategy right now is that we wouldn’t file suit until tolls are being collected.”
Landolfi said he didn’t think the tolls would ever be collected. “I personally think this whole toll thing is going to blow up,” he said. “You cannot single out one class of vehicle, so I think it’s not going to be continued and the $40 million for these gantries is going to be wasted, basically. I can’t see this whole process really taking effect and continuing because of the impending litigation.”
Michaud said that regardless of the environmental assessment and the accompanying public consultation, he had a deep distrust of the state.
“When it comes to listening to what the state has to say, I always have to have in the back of my mind that a lot of what they say is conjecture. They don’t really know. What they try to do is placate the population so that we don’t get all uptight and excited about it,” Michaud said.
Alviti said trucking companies would base their routing decisions on economics. Going through the tolls, he said, would be cheaper than going around them.
“I’m not deaf,” Alviti said. “I hear the rhetoric that there are people — critics of this program and/or political opponents — that say that they’ll do that. Ultimately, trucking companies, especially of the type that truck along the 95 corridor, these big, out-of-state trucking companies that are transporting that have hundreds of trucks in their fleet, they’re driven by economics. If it costs them $15 to go around a toll that they would have paid $7 for, they just are not going to do it.”
The 30-day public comment period on the environmental assessment is now open, and a public hearing on the report will take place at Chariho Middle School on Nov. 21 at 6 p.m.