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The gantries still loom over Interstate 95 in Rhode Island, big metal structures built to collect tolls from trucks passing beneath.
But since September, when a federal judge ruled that the state’s tolls on trucks were unconstitutional, the sensors on the gantries have been switched off.
Policy wonks love tolls: As the renewed interest in congestion tolling in Massachusetts shows, on paper they seem like an elegant way to solve multiple problems at once. First, toll revenues can raise money for roads and bridges in a fair way, without raising taxes on people who don’t actually drive on them. Second, by raising tolls during rush hour, states can create inducements to spread out traffic and thus reduce congestion. Putting a price on road use might also steer more commuters to public transportation instead, which is better from an environmental standpoint. Ditto for freight traffic: Tolling trucks makes more environmentally sustainable water and rail transportation more competitive. And thanks to new technology — i.e., those gantries — the safety risks associated with crashes near tollbooths have become ancient history.
What makes sense to technocrats, though, doesn’t necessarily survive contact with political reality.
Just the talk of more tolls in Massachusetts spurred a flurry of angry responses in a recent Boston.com survey. “This seem[s] more like punishment for having a job in Boston than a means to reduce traffic. And just what will the state do with the revenue collected? Give themselves another 20% raise?” wrote one participant.
Indeed, tolls are so unpopular that states often attempt to sweeten the deal with discounts or exemptions. And that’s where the demise of Rhode Island’s tolls program might serve as a warning: The state tried so hard to make the toll program politically palatable that it ended up making it legally untenable. The moral of the story seems to be that if states are going to increase use of tolls as they modernize their transportation systems, they’re going to need to bite the bullet and apply them widely.
Under former governor Gina Raimondo, in 2016 Rhode Island imposed tolls on only a single kind of vehicle: heavy trucks, on the theory that they did disproportionate damage to the state’s bridges (which ranked among the nation’s worst).
But just because trucks account for a big share of wear and tear on bridges doesn’t mean they account for all of it. And that’s ultimately the reason a judge sided with trucking companies that argued they were being singled out.
“This plan had the obvious appeal of raising tens of millions of needed dollars from tractor-trailers while leaving locals largely unaffected,” District Judge William Smith wrote in a ruling blocking the plan. But it “fails to fairly apportion its tolls among bridge users based on a fair approximation of their use of the bridges.”
The judge’s ruling did hint at how Rhode Island could turn the gantries back on — it could expand the types of vehicles tolled so that there was a more rational relationship between tolls and the amount of damage each vehicle does. That would mean tolling smaller trucks, too.
Smaller vehicles, though, would include many owned by Rhode Island drivers.
Meaning, Rhode Island voters.
Now, if the state really wanted a fair and reliable way of funding its bridges — and a future-proof way of paying for transportation as gas tax revenues decline — it could have taken the hint and broadened its toll program. The state — any state — that wants to use tolls to pay for roads and bridges, manage traffic, or encourage mass transit use has to be willing to impose them widely to maximize their impact.
Don’t hold your breath. Last month, the state appealed Smith’s decision instead.
Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.