08/12/2011 10:45 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2011

With I-95 Plan, Rhode Island Mulls Turning Itself Into A Toll Road

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- "One of the greatest engineering achievements of the last century was the completion of the Interstate Highway System," Michael Lewis, director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, told HuffPost.

"We all take it for granted now, because it's always been there," he said. "But the problem is, it ages."

Now the nation's road system is so arthritic that tiny Rhode Island is grappling with an estimated transportation funding gap of $4.5 billion over the next ten years. This year, the state DOT says, it will spend $101.4 million just to service the bond debt it has already issued to keep up with the funding shortfall.

As the gap widens, roads and bridges worsen; out of the state's bridges, 21.6 percent are structurally deficient, the fourth-worst record in the nation.

To fix the hemorrhaging, Rhode Island applied in June to enter a little-known federal pilot program that would allow it to convert its primary artery into a toll road. As motorists on I-95 cross into the state from Connecticut, they could be asked to pony up about $3. Such tolls could raise around $50 million a year for the ailing system.

Nobody likes a toll. But Rhode Island's move may be a harbinger of similar efforts across the country, even in the depths of an economic slowdown. Gas tax money has long been used to fill the Highway Trust Fund, which maintains the grand Eisenhower-era public works project Lewis extolled. The fund's revenues, however, have flattened. Cars are becoming more fuel efficient, and Congress is more reluctant to raise the 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal levy. At the same time, inflation keeps eating into what states can do with the gas tax funds they do have.

In Rhode Island -- perhaps even more so than in New Jersey, where residents famously conflate hometowns and highway exit numbers -- I-95 is a part of the fabric of life.

From the southwestern town of Hopkinton to the compact metropolis of Providence and the aging mill city of Pawtucket in the northeast, virtually no place in the state can be reached without a trip on the highway, which is never very far away.

Even at The Middle of Nowhere Diner in Exeter, which has a website advertising itself as a place "where the women are beautiful, attentive, charming, and like the food, worth the detour," the great road is only a five minute drive away.

The state Department of Transportation's tolling plan, then, was bound to raise popular hackles, just as it did when it was first floated under a previous governor in 2008. When Brown University polled the state's voting public in March of this year, 72.5 percent were opposed to the idea, making it even less popular than a proposed sales tax on coffins.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee's administration is nonetheless pushing ahead with the tolling plan, even in the face of objections raised by federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who told local TV station WPRI in May that "we don't support the kind of approach, though, for roads that have already been built with taxpayer dollars then to be tolled."

Rhode Island believes it has found an exception to the federal government's general rule against instituting new highway tolls that aren't accompanied by road improvements. 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 state's tolling pilot program application garnered letters of support from Chafee and the General Assembly's House speaker and Senate president, but it may face increased political opposition should it come closer to a reality.

Lloyd Albert, senior vice president for public and government affairs at AAA Southern New England, said that the proposal wasn't a good one for the state's drivers.

"Taxpayers have paid for these highways through the gas tax and other funding mechanisms," Albert said, "and to ask them to ante up once again is not a good plan."

In Newport, an old money harbor town that is a magnet for travelers from across the region, business owners seemed mostly sanguine about a tolling plan that could potentially put a dent in the tourism trade.

"They'd keep coming. It's six dollars a beer," said Tim Keys, who owns a clothing boutique on Thames Street, a shopping thoroughfare, referring to prices in the city's bars and eateries. "I don't think it'll affect business at all."

He was far more irked at the prospect -- raised by a 2008 Blue Ribbon Panel for Transportation Funding -- of putting tolls on I-95 where it meets the two major spurs of the interstate system in the state, I-195 and I-295. That, Keys and others in Newport pointed out, could lead to increased traffic congestion on the road to Providence for people taking trips within the state.

For that very reason, the state's proposal to the federal DOT only suggested tolling I-95 near the first or second exit past the Connecticut border.

Lewis, who was previously the director of Boston's "Big Dig" Central Artery Tunnel Project, is well versed in shepherding unpopular programs through to completion. He acknowledged the state transportation department had "a lot of work to do with public outreach," but said he was committed to finding some sort of fix to the state's transportation woes.

If the federal government gives the proposal a green light, it could take two years before tolls actually go up. Until then, Lewis said, his department would "let the chips fall where they may, but the first step is to get the approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation."

In the meantime, he said, what is left over for his department's operating funds after bond debts are serviced is "more of an allowance than a budget."

The state's mass transit system, which also relies on dwindling state and federal gas tax receipts, faces similar financial woes. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, which runs buses throughout the state, is $4.6 million short in funds this year. Seven lines could be cut entirely, as could holiday and summer beach bus service in the Ocean State.

"The way RIPTA is funded currently is not a good way," Charles Odimgbe, the system's CEO, told HuffPost before a public hearing in Pawtucket that was held because of bus line cuts there. "Using the gas tax to fund any public entity is not a good way."

The state's transit system won't find a savior any time soon in the form of I-95 tolls, however. The federal government's pilot program won't allow states to spend toll money on mass transit.

That is a mistake, said John Flaherty, director of research and communications for Grow Smart RI, which advocates for increased mass transit funding. Sending toll money to buses, he argued, "makes the same sense as saying we're going to use gas tax proceeds to help support transit."

The personal impact of Rhode Island's bus cuts -- and the ramifications of the general gas tax decline throughout the country -- was made clear in the Pawtucket service cut hearing Odimgbe attended. One woman spoke for her son, who has autism and uses the bus to to visit friends. Seniors, fearful of losing their sole connection to the outside world, spoke up against the cuts as well.

Brenda Schenck, a resident of Central Falls who works the night shift at McDonald's cleaning windows and doing other maintenance work, also asked that her line be saved.

"I have arthritis in my hips and my knees," Schenk said. "After my work, I'm lucky if I can crawl home."

If the Route 80 bus, which she takes home in the morning, gets cut, she may lose her job and even her home. "My work is physical. I'm dead ... Now they're going to beat me some more," Schenk said.

Last year, stimulus funds saved the line from elimination, but no such hope is on the horizon this time around. If I-95 tolls could help, she'd be happy to have them fund RIPTA.

"Anything that would work," Schenk said. "I don't care where the money comes from -- I want my bus."