Today, the Rhode Works plan, which creates a system for tolling trucks across the network of Rhode Island highways, will have its first hearing in the RI Senate Finance Committee. The bill is listed in the “hearing and/or consideration” section of the Finance Committee’s agenda, which in the parlance of the General Assembly means that it could be voted on at this meeting, i.e. its first Senate hearing might be its only Senate hearing.
The Rhode Works bill includes language stating that cars will not be tolled, but such language is practically meaningless. If a future governor and legislature decide to toll cars, they could easily strike out the prohibition against tolling cars in the same legislation that lays out the details of an expanded toll regime.
However, the Senate Finance Committee will also hear a bill today to send to the voters a constitutional amendment which would require that any future car tolls be directly approved by voter referendum. The proposed amendment reads…
No act authorizing the imposition of tolls upon passenger vehicles being operated on any bridge or roadway, other than those subject to tolls as of January 1, 2016, shall take effect until it has been approved by the majority of those electors voting in a statewide referendum and by the majority of those electors voting in a referendum in the municipality in which the proposed tolling would be allowed.
A constitutional amendment would provide meaningful protection against car tolls as it cannot be made to vanish by legislative action alone; once part of the state constitution, direct voter authorization of some kind would be required to impose any new tolls on passenger vehicles.
The constitutional amendment bill is posted in the same “hearing and/or consideration” section of the agenda as the truck toll bill, so there is no reason why both bills shouldn’t move through the legislative process together — unless, of course, the plan all along has been to use truck tolls as a stepping stone towards car tolls.
Any legislator who votes for the Rhode Works bill without also voting for the constitutional amendment will be voting for truck tolls now with an option for car tolls later.