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Transport expert tells lawmakers most states eschew tolls

PROVIDENCE — While some states have considered tolling as an option to pump much-needed revenue into their transportation infrastructure, most have not, a transportation expert told Rhode Island legislators Wednesday.

Jaime Rall, senior policy specialist on transportation for the National Conference of State Legislatures, presented the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Funding for East Bay Bridges with a picture of what she said is a national problem in finding ways to pay for roads and bridges.

Created by the General Assembly during the past legislative session, the panel’s original charge to look at the East Bay bridges was expanded to include funding options for all state transportation projects.

“(Tolling) is not uncommon,” Rall said in response to a question from Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton. “But it’s not one of the most common tools used (by other states).”

She said the most common methods of increasing transportation funding are: raising fuel taxes; increasing transportation fees and road violation fines; and taxing rental cars. Some states have placed taxes on bicycle sales and gambling facilities, Rall said, while others have enacted fees on alternative fuel or hybrid cars.

In May, Virginia completely revamped its transportation funding method, she said, replacing its 17.5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax with a 3.5 percent sales tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, and a 6 percent sales tax on the wholesale price of diesel fuel.

The state also created a $64 Alternative Fuel Vehicle fee and increased its state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent, with that increase dedicated to transportation projects.

Three other states — Massachusuetts, Maryland and Vermont — increased their state gasoline taxes this year, Rall said.

Oregon has adopted a voluntary pilot program to replace its cents-per-gallon gasoline tax with a vehicle-miles-driven tax, Rall said. Other states are discussing that concept, she said.

Michael P. Lewis, director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, said the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed comprehensive transportation funding legislation Tuesday.

According to media reports on the legislation, nearly all of the $2.4 billion expected to be raised comes from increases in fees, fines and lifting the cap on wholesale fuel sales.

Edwards, a member of the legislative panel, said after the meeting that he was encouraged that most states are not looking at tolling as an option to close their transportation funding gaps.

He cited a Providence Journal-Channel 12 poll that indicated 57 percent of Rhode Islanders object to any toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge. That will help Newport County legislators garner support from lawmakers from other parts of the state to stop any toll on that span linking Portsmouth and Tiverton, he said.

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do and we’re looking at a lot of options,” Edwards said.

Another commission member, Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, said he hopes legislative fiscal staffers will put some hard numbers to some of the options being considered when the commission next meets in December. Like Edwards, he thought Wednesday’s presentation was encouraging for the anti-toll faction.

“Absolutely,” DiPalma said when asked if Rall’s presentation supported the move to abolish any toll. “(Tolling) is way down in the mix (of funding options).”

The commission has to report its findings to the full General Assembly by Jan. 15.

As part of the legislation creating the panel, the legislature prevented the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority from placing a 75-cent toll per crossing on vehicles with E-ZPass transponders bought in Rhode Island.

Those with out-of-state transponders would pay $3.75 per crossing, while those with no transponder would pay $5.25, which includes a $1.50 handling fee for mailing bills to those drivers.

Instead, the General Assembly established a 10-cent-pertrip toll for all vehicles until at least April 1, while the legislature tries to develop an alternative funding method for roads and bridges.

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