Chris Maxwell: RIDOT’s Inadequate Environmental Assessment Intended to Accelerate Toll Bait Lawsuit

[Below are the prepared comments of Chris Maxwell, President of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, for the RIDOT toll gantry workshop Tuesday evening. The video of Chris’ actual comments, abbreviated due to time constraints, can be viewed here. For the sake of the news outlet that erroneously reported that public comment Tuesday night was mostly a re-hash of old objections and omitted all on-topic comments from their story, Ocean State Current has bolded all of Chris’ comments that pertain to the Environmental Assessment that was the subject of Tuesday’s workshop.]

Good evening. My name is Chris Maxwell and I represent the Rhode Island Trucking Association and all local trucking companies adversely affected by truck-only tolls.

Our opposition to this plan from its introduction in the spring of 2015 is well-documented. And despite the justified rancour that still exists, our industry’s willingness to contribute to infrastructure improvement remains steadfast – even beyond our existing contributions which are considerable.

In 2016, the trucking industry in Rhode Island paid roughly $70 million in federal and state roadway taxes. The average five-axle tractor trailer – the very class of trucks that would be tolled under the Rhodeworks plan – paid over $6,000 in state highway user fees and taxes – this in addition to the an average of over $9,000 in federal user fees and taxes.

The net effect of these figures is that the trucking industry paid 29% of all taxes owed by Rhode Island motorists despite trucks representing only 6% of vehicle miles traveled in the state.

These disproportinate figures directly correlate to the environmental assessment of truck-tolls at locations 1 and 2 of this plan – specifically the Tefft Hill Road and Mechanic Street overpasses.

According to the Louis Berger Group’s Investment-Grade Tolling Study issued on November 3 [referenced in the Environmental Assessment], traffic counts of class 8 tractor trailers at the two locations being studied represented only 2.1% of all vehicle traffic – that includes cars and trucks – everything. Under this plan, based on the berger figures, 2% of one very narrow class of vehicle – Class 8 tractor-trailers – would be paying 100% of the tolls. This while 98% of all other motorists pay nothing at all.

Throughout this debate, the State of Rhode Island has gone to great lengths to protect the Rhode Island business owner – or to at least appear concerned about the effects of this plan. From failed attempts at tax credits, to commercial vehicle fee reductions, the consistent message, although very inaccurate, has been that this program will be targeting through-truckers. The provision of a $40 daily cap for all trucks still remains as part of the program and, in our estimation, is quite vulnerable to a legal challenge. The cap would protect local businesses by giving them predictability on their daily toll expenditure. For example, if you operate 20 trucks throughout the state, the maximum daily cost would be only $800 per day or $4000 per week. Of course, this cap would apply to through truckers, but would most beneficial to local truckers and businesses who would, essentially, pay $40 for unbridled road usage. Through truckers on the other hand, would pay a one-way capped fee of $20 per day, per direction on Interstate 95 for only 46 miles of road usage each way. There is great disparity in the cap protection which favors locally traveling trucks. A successful challenge and elimination of the cap would have catastrophic effects on local businesses, supply chain costs and, most importantly, our cost of living.

Businesses are counting on this protection and its legal vulnerability should be vetted.

Another false notion that has been sold is that through-truckers will shoulder the burden. In the proposed tolling areas of Tefft Hill Road and Mechanic Street, the Berger report illustrates yet another disproportionate burden on local truck traffic. In fact, the Berger study showed that 56% of tractor trailer trips in these two areas are intrastate while only 6% are through trips. The remaining 38% of trips have either a destination in Rhode Island or are carrying loads that originate from Rhode Island. clearly, Rhode Island truckers will bear a far greater burden than through-truckers. The claim by our legislative leaders that 60% of the tolling revenue will come from through truckers is dangerously inaccurate.

The truth is that 94% of the truck traffic in this area is directly tied to Rhode Island’s economy. Again, 94% of that original 2% truck traffic count that I mentioned earlier have a direct, causal relationship to our state’s very fragile and intertwined economy.

Let me wrap up my comments by addressing the NEPA process and whether an environmental assessment of two tolling locations in a remote section of the state is sufficient to find a ‘finding of no significant impact” or FONSI. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated, the acute impact on local trucking costs in this area alone are alarming and should raise dire concerns over the net effects on our living environment.

In a meeting with Rhode Island’s FHWA administrator Carlos Machado on June 29, 2016, a meeting in which Mr. Machado afforded my industry the transparency and information that was lacking from our local government and DOT, Mr. Machado informed me that, at that time, there was a difference of opinion over whether the environmental assessment process should be employed or whether this plan commanded a full environmental impact statement.

Mr. Machado favored a full environmental impact study…RIDOT an environmental assessment. What happened?

It was evident that RIDOT felt that the deep dive of a full environmental impact study could effectively delay this plan’s implementation. But more candidly, I believe that RIDOT, at that time and still now, wanted to start tolling ASAP to test the waters on this yet to be tested tolling model. By baiting a lawsuit from our industry, they could test their plan. In fact, our governor confirmed this in an interview in April of 2016. When asked on WPRO about provoking a lawsuit, she responded that it “is something we are thinking about” and that “certainly, you would want to put up one toll and not spend a lot of money to test it before putting up 30 gantries.”

I have a real problem with this and believe federal highway should have concerns over any governing agency that operates in this fashion. Targeting and alienating an entire industry, investing millions in man-hours and studies, stonewalling information requests, prematurely signing contracts…and baiting a lawsuit from an aggrieved industry in order to assess the legality of legislation. It’s no wonder we’re in the shape we’re in.

I close by supporting Director Machado’s initial position, one which summarily dismisssed by RIDOT who ultimately got their way. A state the size of Rhode Island can only be served by a full, holistic assessment of the effects of truck-only tolls. This is the smallest state in the union, 46 miles border-to border, where everyone knows everyone and everything is interrelated. This is not Indiana or New York, where we are assessing the effects of one interstate toll’s effects on a large county. This is 14 gantries with some 33 tolling points – an untested network whose effects cannot be assessed by a targeted, narrow assessment. There will be a domino effect on our supply-chain the likes of which we have never seen and the cumulative reaction of our industry needs to be fully vetted and studied. University of Rhode Island Professor Len Lardaro, a well-respected voice and authority on our state’s economy, consistently points to a lack of due diligence by our government leaders that has resulted in our state’s failures. We like to fast-track things – “build it and they will come”. But time and time again, they don’t come and we’re left shouldering the burden of failed programs. Let’s heed Dr. Lardaro’s extremely poignant warning. The stakes here are far to high for anything short of a full environmental impact study of this plan statewide and in its entirety. This process represents a level of due diligence that our citizens deserve and which has been absent far too long. And, by the way, Dr. Lardaro has predicted the harmful effects of truck-only tolling on Rhode Island’s economy.

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