Greater City Providence

RIDOT Director: RI will seek federal approval for Route 95 tolls

Massachusetts Toll Plaza
Photo (cc) freakapotimus

RIDOT Director Michael Lewis tells WRNI’s Ian Donnis that the state will seek federal permission to place tolls on Route 95.

Lewis says the tolls would create a much-needed revenue stream, in part from out of state drivers passing through the state. In one example of the state’s urgent transit needs, Lewis says work must begin within four to five years to replace a portion of I-95 near the Providence Place mall.

“We don’t have a source of funds for that [work],” he told me after taping WPRI/WNAC-TV’s Newsmakers this morning.

Of course this is not the first time the state has discussed tolling area roadways for revenue. I wrote two years ago about the need to provide a carrot in the form of better mass transportation, especially across the Massachsuetts border, to go with the stick of tolls.

Better transit will especially be needed when it comes time to replace the viaduct on Route 195 behind the Providence Place Mall. Can anyone imagine the chaos that project will cause?

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • First, I remember the chaos created by that viaduct being repaired back in the 1990s. I don’t need to imagine anything. 20 year life span? FAIL.

    Second, what happens if the money we make at the toll booths is off-set by us losing federal funding again because of air quality? Toll booths are intentionally-created traffic jams.

    Third, the MA line in Pawtucket is not a great place to put a toll booth. It will push a lot of cars onto surface streets through Pawtucket. RT 1 near the S. Attleboro train station = nightmare. That said, it will also drive through-traffic onto 295, which is fairly desirable as far as those things go.

    But a toll plaza in the Westerly area will catch the through traffic in a place where the work-around is a lot longer, where there’s no by-pass route and where there’s less flow, meaning manageable delays. Maximum EZ-Pass lanes. In-state discounts would be nice.

  • the day plans are made to add tolls on I-95 is the last day I will pay the mortgage on my house and my first day as a return resident of Massachusetts.

    If I lived two miles away in Seekonk or Attleboro, I would already being paying less real estate tax, less car tax, and less gas tax. I’m not adding yet another tax on my ability to make a living since this state is so mind-crushingly bad at creating jobs in the first place.

  • My previous post on this topic was related to Massachusetts’ desire to put in tolls, that may be off the table now up there. But my suggestion was to place a plaza just south of 295 in Massachusetts and for RI and Mass. to build the plaza together and share the revenue (regionalism!).

    Putting a plaza in Mass. just south of 295 would address the bottleneck issues in Pawtucket, but probably still result in a fair number of people on our side trying to use Route 1 to 295 to avoid the plaza. It would allow our people to freely reach the South Attleboro T and Mass. residents could get to Attleboro station toll free.

    The big benefit of that placement would be encouraging through traffic to use 295 rather than 95, especially beneficial during the Route 95 viaduct reconstruction. Although, that would not capture through-state traffic, which is what RIDOT is gunning for. Back in the UrbanPlanet days, someone actually suggested swapping the numbers on 95 and 295 during the Pawtucket Bridge construction so it would be more plain to through-trucks, which aren’t allowed on the bridge, that they could just stay on 95 (formerly 295) to get through the state. Similar to how 95 is routed onto 128 around Boston for through traffic.

    I do not remember the viaduct repairs in the 90’s as I was either in high school on the Cape or living in Boston. My guess though, is that was a stop-gap to avoid the inevitable reconstruction project we are facing now (our Assembly and RIDOT not surprisingly have a long history of kicking problems down the road (so to speak)). I think also, that project had a lot to do with completing the Convention Center interchange which did not allow for traffic movements in every direction as it does now.

    Since we’ve been kicking our problems down the road for so long, and since as a nation, we’ve gotten ourselves addicted to the single-occupant automobile as a primary means of travel, we now face massive investment to keep up with our infrastructure. Somehow, we have to pay for those problems. Director Lewis also told WRNI that a Vehicle Miles Traveled charge is on the table and is an idea he supports.

    Our other option, which was a post I had in my head for a while, but never got around to writing, is to not rebuild the viaduct. Not rebuild the Pawtucket River Bridge, just get rid of Route 95…

  • I agree with Brick – this is too far. We have to fix the state’s structural budget problems, not add more taxes and fees.

    Jef, we have a vehicle miles traveled charge — it’s called the “gas tax”.

  • I’m in favor of the tolls. Its the placement of these possible tolls I’ll be most concerned with.

    I recall a suggestion a while back that the biggest profit making area would be close to the I-95 / I-295 Junction in Warwick, in the middle of the state.

    Rhode Islanders should not be forced to pay this type of tax within a land mass its size and would essentially tear apart our unique city-state system of commerce, family, education and tourism, to name a few. (Bridges are different ref: Newport).

    Any future toll should only be considered for the boarder areas of I-95 and I propose one at each. Though having boarder tolls may not take in the highest potential revenue, they will certainly take in more than what we’re are receiving now, which is zero.

    Not only does a two toll system benefit Rhode Island tax payers overall, a toll system on the boarder areas near Massachusetts and Connecticut are much more geographically capable of handling such infrastructure. Each posses less road narrowing and curves and have ample land width to house a multilane toll structure as well as the inevitable backup of cars slowing to enter the tollgate.

    A toll entering either boarder area seems to be most appropriate. Toll or no toll, I’d still rather live in Rhode Island any day.

  • John, the “Gas Tax” is not a “vehicle miles traveled tax.” But thats likely to come whereas Congress is proposing such legislation.

    The Fuel Tax is drying up (pun intended) with greater use of public transportation among rising oil and gas prices and so this is one reason we must look for alternative ways to fund our infrastructures, i.e. tolls.

    In fact, a Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax, though controversial, is a more fair/flat tax than that of the Fuel Tax.

  • On my commute in the morning, I see about 75% cars with RI plates between the border and I-495.

    Those are the people that this toll will punish. I realize there is some weird thing where the RIDOT and others think that there is all this traffic coming through RI but I tend to doubt it outside of the trucking industry and maybe some Cape traffic. Now, if you want to make a toll that is only for vehicles with more than two axles, then I would be for that, although others may warn about the effects on the economy.

  • Might help and encourage our own Rhode Island economy if folks who lived in Rhode Island worked in Rhode Island. Topic for another day (as I enter the word “HOPE” into the captcha field).

  • Are you seriously blaming me because I couldn’t find work in RI?

    You are a complete moron.

  • Maybe if they’d maintained the viaduct through Providence they wouldn’t have to put a toll in place. Here’s an idea, tax the fuck out of all the retired DOT employees to pay for this.

  • The viaduct was built in the early 60s. In a northern climate bridge design life is usually around 50 years. The viaduct originally was designed with three lanes in each direction, but for decades has had four lanes crammed in each way instead. It has been functioning far beyond its design and capacity. Its concrete deck and steel beams are fatigued and cracking, which has to do with age and overuse.

    Massachusetts collects tolls on the Mass Pike. It’s not only the Mass Pike that benefits from those tolls. Connecticut no longer has tolls, but its gas tax that is over 10 cents more per gallon than Rhode Island. As more hybrids and electrics are purchased or general fuel efficiency improved, the more meaningless the gas tax becomes. Tolls and/or vehicle miles traveled are the only alternatives.

    Much rail infrastructure was in place for well over 100 years before rails and bridges required replacement. The tragedy is that the entire country, not just Rhode Islanders, have been duped into supporting an expensive unsustainable automotive transportation system. The real joke is how the majority of the built environment constructed over the last 60 years was built around exclusive car use.

  • Brick, stop being a brick. Try being more of a cool relaxation therapeutic facial mud before you start slinging it.

    My previous comment was meant to cover the issue of why in fact so many vehicles pass through our city-state and the hope to look at alternative ways to fund these essentials. Whether you live in Rhode Island and work here or not, we’re all using the roads. Not just you.

    Perhaps if we did have a “Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax,” those who escape Boston, to live in less expensive Rhode Island, whilst still working in the Commonwealth could get their commuter routes upgraded so they won’t die on the way to said job.

    Lets spread some of that ‘wealth’ and leave the mud to the spa- anything will help in this economy and I hear mud is expensive these days.

  • It has been pointed out since the study that placing tolls only at the Connecticut line and the Aquidneck Island bridges would put a heavier burden on the 60,000 Aquidneck Island residents, while the remainder of the state would be mostly unaffected. If tolls are adopted they would have to be more uniformly distributed around the state to be fair.

    Raymond La Hood pointed out recently in a WPRI interview that the federal government is only supportive of new interstate tolls for major road improvements, such as road widenings (not maintenance or bridge replacements) and that they were opposed to adding tolls to interstates that have already been paid for.

  • Add up the costs of vehicles, infrastructure, insurance, crashes, pollution and other externalities. The automotive transportation system is amazingly expensive. Yet the costs are spread about, buried and time shifted in such a way that even with $4 gas it feels practically cost-free to hop in and drive a few miles. Tolls are one good way to connect the decision to drive to the reality that it actually costs something to do so.

    Unlike a VMT, toll schemes can include peak hour surcharges to address congestion problems, plus ways to soak out-of-staters.

    There is all this talk about nice things we can no longer afford, most of it dead wrong. I say we can no longer afford to pretend that driving is cheap.

  • “…they were opposed to adding tolls to interstates that have already been paid for.”

    What is the point of pretending that something which requires plenty of ongoing expense to keep it from falling into uselessness is “already paid for?”

  • “Buried” is a great description. The full costs for automotive transportation at all levels are concealed. It’s a deception.

  • Tolls and/or vehicle miles traveled are the only alternatives.

    Or… we can simply stop paying for our roads and bridges. Put giant “At Your Own Risk” signs on them and when the viaduct crashes into the Woonasquatucket we can have a memorial service for the people who died. Much cheaper than replacing the viaduct.

  • RIDOT thinks too small. It’s in the culture here. What is lacking is a state / PVD metro area wide transport STRATEGY. If we’re going to do tolls, let’t to NJ TPKE style. At the same time let’s increase commuter services. With the added revenue we can promise people that state highways and bridges will be overall be better maintained AND HOLD ARE LEADERS TO IT. Residents can swallow that pill if they promised better roads. With the toll plazas we plan to develop mass transit projects. Add 24 hr BRT along 95 with RIPTA park and rides, thread a tram downtown. Reconnect Woonsocket and Pawtucket to the state with this wider and better transit and redevelopment plan. Then let’s Go to US DOT, and say “hey we can be the first car discretionary state state in the country”. We’ll power it all with wind, and here’s how we’re going to do it. Now give us some money.

    The debate (in general) should be elevated. The solutions should be more complete and comprehensive, (but realistic). We need to address the really big issues that are like a cancer on this state, which are thematically of global competitiveness. We have the brains and the resources just not the political will to do it.

  • believe it or not, roads cost money to rebuild and maintain. the gas tax is shrinking and hasnt covered the entire cost of roads for decades. personally i prefer the cheapskates win and they let the roads decay and collapse further until they arent an option for getting around.

  • People get passionate about stuff and forget things like economics.

    My point is this. There are real economic costs to tolls, especially tolls that create artificial borders. If you lower economic activity between RI and CT and MA that will hurt the RI economy. Maybe DOT will then have more money but other things may be hurt. It is foolish to ignore this.

    Second, you cannot create jobs in RI by increasing isolation and making it harder for people to live here and work elsewhere.

    Third, outside of hidden effects, a state which relies heavily on the tourist industry in its economy should be very careful about rhetoric regarding punishing out of staters.

  • The viaduct falling into the river might be desirable (not to mention dramatic) and spell an end to the city/state car addiction, but would cause hideous disruptions in the short term.

    Example eastbound to northbound traffic would have to loop south to route 10 to come north. The snag would be traversing west to 6 to 295 by way of Olneyville Square streets, since a direct ramp was never built north to west. Another problem would be the local suburban traffic from 95 and 146 dumping onto downtown streets. Pre Capital Center it might have been possible to handle that kind of traffic, but several critical links were severed when they designed the district.

    Brick’s point is reasonable that economic activity might take a hit with hefty border tolls, particularly on the MA side. There had been discussion about a $3 toll at the CT line. If you include Chezmatt’s idea to using the New Jersey model and expand it to include E-Z pass/toll ticketing at every entrance and exit, though immensely complicated to institute, the state would end up with a toll system that charges for miles traveled and would be inherently fair.

    If a toll of perhaps 12 cents per mile were imposed with this kind of system, a northbound car trip from Downtown Providence to the MA line (6 miles) would cost 72 cents. This would hardly be an economy killer. If a toll were paid at every exit, it would limit people from trying to avoid tolls by driving on local streets.

    Tolls and VMT tax and what remains of the gas tax is critical not just for preserving road infrastructure, but as in the New Jersey model would offer a sustainable funding source for public transit that doesn’t exist today. The Coalition for Transportation Choices (CTC) has been supporting and lobbying a version of this kind of approach.

  • The gas tax is not a miles driven tax since it’s not flat across all vehicles. Hybrids and smaller cars pay far less in gas tax than people who drive big cars. The miles driven tax would flatten that and make all drivers pay the same (though those who drive smaller cars would still make out a bit better because they’d still be paying less in gas tax).

    I support the tolls as long as they are done properly. I also think there should be a discount for RI residents who pay taxes here, just like there is on the Newport Bridge (though people are fighting that as discriminating against out of staters).

    If there is a toll, I think it should include all interstate highways in and out of the state (95, 295, and 195). Make it a fairly nominal cost, like the Garden State Parkway where there’s a toll booth every so often and you pay 35 cents. Make it so that through traffic taking 295 costs less than through traffic taking 95 through Providence. It will hurt the people taking 195 to the Cape, but they can probably afford it (and will probably pay it anyway because the other way around takes you way north out of the way or sends you through Newport, which has its own toll).

    Sure, it sucks for people who live in RI and work in MA, but, as I said, give RI residents a good size discount.

  • Now that the interstate highway system is essentially built out … and now requires only maintenance and “tinkering”, how about setting up federal / state commissions that maintain each road, e.g. the I-95 Commission which would include representatives from the seaboard states from Maine to Florida as well as a federal transportation department member. The balkanization of the interstates will only continue as each state struggles for even the 20% matching to make repairs. Rhode Island’s political climate does not qualify anyone to be fully RESPONSIBLE for a segment of such an important national asset it seems. I dunno … just an idea …

  • Toll booths at every entrance and exit would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention obsolescent. Transponder readers and license plate cameras are all you need. I do however hate the idea of a compulsory transponder with no option to “just pay cash.”

    A system I would approve of might work like this: If you do not have an EZ pass, and you drive on I-95, 195 or 295, license plate cameras see it and you receive a bill. To avoid that, all you need to do is visit any gas station, restaurant, tourist attraction, etc and purchase a highway day pass, for less than what the mailed bill or a border to border nonstop trip on an out of state EZ pass would cost. All the vendor would have to do to validate the pass is submit the plate # to the system so it knows not to bill that car that day. Instead of inflicting a “soak the tourists” bad taste, you turn it into a “Welcome to RI” kind of thing.

  • Andrew I, great idea!!

    AND it would get people (tourists) to go to those sites as a destination, perhaps spend a little more, do more sightseeing, etc.

  • I am not sure how I feel about tolls but as someone who routinely drives from Northern Virginia to Rhode Island these days I can tell you that no matter how much it costs for me to get across that #*$&^! Delaware Memorial Bridge, I pay it. It doesn’t matter how much it costs for me to get to Dulles Town Center, if I have to go out that way or to Reston i just pay it, and i don’t try to get around it. I call it “cost of doing business.”

    Now i don’t have to pay it every day as part of my commute to the office and if I did perhaps I’d think differently, but why couldn’t we think about something that allows people to buy a months worth of commute at a fraction of the price of a daily commute, and make it work for RI residents who work in CT or MA, and make it cost two dollars to go through RI (maybe even make it so that if you cross through RI in the same day it is cheaper) or something.

    RI does not have the business tax base to support the wholesale maintenance of its highways, and since we simply cannot close them because we don’t have the money to pay to fix them, I am not sure what the answer is aside from “figure out how to raise money to keep them from falling into the bay.”

    Here’s the bottom line, though, I suppose. You have to make it cheaper, easier and nicer to NOT DRIVE in order to get people off roads and into public transportation. (although to be fair getting folks to take the train isn’t going to fix the roads)

    With the cost of gas where it is, and the tolls, and the complete and utter attack on my peaceful state of mind–it is far cheaper for me to fly to Providence and rent a car for a few days than it is now for me to drive.

    It is almost cheaper for me to take the train, and it will be when i can wifi it all the way up to PVD. If i could just easily transport my Kymko scooter up here and leave it somewhere I’d never need a car.

    But Jef will have to get a helmet.

  • I know in the NYC-area, you can get commuter plans for EZ Pass. There’s no reason you can’t do that here in RI if we get tolls. Allow the people who live in RI and work in MA to purchase a commuter plan that allows them to go through the tolls much cheaper. If there’s a peak and off-peak toll difference, they could pay the off-peak price all the time. The same can be true for people who commute from RI to CT. Do people in NJ, NY, MA, VA, NH, and ME find different routes to avoid the tolls? Sure, that might happen at first, but eventually people will realize it’s just easier to stay on the highway.

  • Perhaps political reality demands some preference for local, daily drivers. However, letting commuters through “much cheaper” defeats the purpose of peak hour pricing. It even defeats the purpose of tolling, which is raising the serious money needed to maintain the roads directly from the people who demand them!

  • You set rules for who is eligible for the commuter plan, such as only RI residents, so people from MA traveling into RI are not eligible. And there’s a monthly fee or something in addition to the toll. It would still work out cheaper than the cost of the peak hour pricing, but not totally making it worth people’s while to lie about being commuters.

  • Andrew I hits the nail on the head when it comes to the issue that will be first and foremost on people’s minds when it comes to tolls: there would be no toll booths.

    The system proposed to toll East River bridges in New York was entirely electronic: transponders would deduct tolls at full speed, and a system would photograph license plates of those without transponders and bill them by mail. Unfortunately, many detractors of tolls in NYC are unaware of this and oppose it based on the fear of congestion on either side of the bridge.

    This system already works on highways in Ontario, Texas, and California. It works even better with cordon tolls (congestion zones), but unfortunately, given widespread low density of employment centers and a lack of frequent public transit, for now that’s simply not a viable option in Rhode Island.

  • DOT has discussed widening I-95 from East Greenwich to the Connecticut border. Perhaps this is their justification to the feds for adding tolls.

    I think the tolls are a bad idea. I don’t think there is enough volume to support. it. I take about a dozen drives down the East Coast per year and when coming and going from RI, there really are not a lot of cars on I-95 crossing the border. Nowhere near what can be seen at the NY Northbound tolls for the New England Expressway.

    So my guess is that if tolls were introduced, then even less cars would cross because people would find ways around the tolls.

    Are we really this desperate? Maybe next we should put port-a-potties along the side of I-95 and charge a $1.00 for each usage. Sheesh.

  • The more I think about this, the more I think Lewis is just prepping US DOT and Congress for the reality that they are going to have to fund these projects.

    NJ has two really great advantages when it comes to tolling. First, the Delaware and Hudson Rivers mean that any escape from NJ requires a bridge (other than a small portion of the NY/NJ border).

    Second, other than IIRC the NYC crossings and the Delaware Memorial (for which there no alternative unless you want to go several miles out of the way) they only toll for leaving the Jerz, and who would want to stay there? (that’s a joke, I quite like some parts)

    BTW, according to some studies, a single truck (even laden properly) can be responsible for as much damage to infrastructure as 5000 cars.

    “The nation’s economy depends on trucking, but that method of shipment comes with a price. Engineers estimate that a fully loaded truck–a five-axle rig weighing 80,000 pounds, the interstate maximum–causes more damage to a highway than 5,000 cars. Some road planners say that the toll is even higher, that it would take close to 10,000 cars to equal the damage caused by one heavy truck. When the trucks are overloaded, as quite a few of them are, the damage is exponentially worse. Increasing a truck’s weight to 90,000 pounds results in a 42 percent increase in road wear. Pavement designed to last 20 years wears out in seven.”

    (I wish this guy had cited his work, I am too lazy to look for the actual studies, these numbers are the worst case scenario, there are obviously studies which are less damning to trucks, but from what I have seen, 100 times as much damage as a car is about the lowest estimate)

    Anyway, this is the reason for my much earlier comment that tolling 3+ axle vehicles would seem more acceptable, though of course that would affect the economy as well (if in nothing else than it may cost you 0.5% more for lettuce or something)

    Also, since weight is so much of a factor in road decay, this is one reason that I prefer the gas tax to the mileage tax. Smaller, lighter, more efficient cars cause less infrastructure damage than gigantic SUVs, etc. There is also the consideration that due to environmental concerns we should be rewarding people for burning less hydrocarbons.

  • So much misinformation about tolls

    “Tolls bring traffic jams+ bad air”
    False. Modern tolls rely on transponders + cameras. You drive at 65mph like usual and the tolling is invisible. If you dont have a transponder, you get mailed a bill.

    “Tolls punish local residents”
    False. Tolls allow you to program different fee schedules for different people. Truck? Higher toll. Just passing through state? Higher toll. Only using the freeway for 2 exits? Low toll. Local resident? Low toll.

    Tolls can also be changed by time of day, to reduce rush hour congestion. If people who normally drive at 5:30 push their trip out to 6pm to pay less, bam, less congestion for everyone.

    “Charging people lowers trips, kills commerce”
    So why does the MBTA get to charge a fare? Why do cars get a free ride?

  • @JJJJ

    I’d like to see how well that “you’ll get sent a bill” would work. While mailing in that yellow DMV change of address card may be a high priority for suburbanites when they move, there are lots if (irresponsible) people simply forget to update their address on their registration, and move frequently. So “mailing them a bill” and the process of collecting the money may actually end up costing the state money, especially if you are talking about $3.00 here and $3.00 there.

    And cars don’t get a free pass. I just bought a new vehicle, just a small Nissan crossover. It is going to cost me $2,900 in vehicle excise tax over the next 3 years to the City of Cranston. I paid $1,5343 in sales tax. I pay the state and federal fuel tax each time I put gas into it. I pay 7% sales on oil changes and maintenance and tires and parts for it.

    You consider this a “free ride”?

  • Miguel, we can find out how well that “you’ll get sent a bill” would work by asking cities like Toronto and London and others who use it now.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Director Lewis has said that widening Route 95 in South County is off the table. Every time I hear him speak he reiterates that we cannot and will not be expanding highways anymore. We need to maintain what we have and look for alternative ways to move around.

  • Miguel, it’s not a theory, its how toll roads in California, Florida etc work. And you wouldnt get a letter for every toll, youd get it at the end of the month. As mentioned above, London, Toronto and many others do it as well. Just because it hasnt been done here doesnt mean it’s impossible. Some smart people have sat down and thought of ways to make it work.

    Truth be told, I have no idea how it works for foreign cars. But then again, if you give a speed ticket to a canadian, is there any incentive to pay it? In all likely hood, the number of canadian toll evaders will be so small as to not matter. The majority of users will be using an ezpass style system anyway.

    Considering those amounts dont go for paying for the road, yes it’s a free ride. I payed sales tax on my sandwich, doesnt mean the MBTA lets me ride free (25% of MA sales tax goes to the MBTA). I pay property and income taxes, doesnt mean I get a free lunch at the government cafeteria.

  • I wonder why anyone would want to widen the least traveled portion of 95. It’s not even close to capacity. If anything, it would create a bottleneck at the CT border when it goes back to 2 lanes (unless CT is also planning to widen their least traveled portion of highway). That would be a HUGE waste of money.

  • RI asks to put tolls on I-95 near Conn. [WPRI]

    The link has a link to a copy of the state’s toll application. The revenue would be used to pay for the Providence Viaduct as well as work at the 95/4 interchange to allow for a direct link from 4 north to 95 south and 95 north to 4 south. The link is said to be needed for truck traffic to from points south to Quonset.

  • ProJo: Two roads to Rhode Island highway tolls appear closed

    U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in the state for the opening of the new Wickford Junction commuter rail station, said in an interview that he won’t support tolls for roads that, like Route 95, have already been paid for.

    I wonder how Sec. LaHood defines “paid for.” Do interstate highways plow themselves, fill their own potholes, maintain their own bridges themselves, all with the initial investment we made 60 years ago? Is that what he means? I don’t even understand how someone can make the statement that a 60 year old highway has been “paid for” with a straight face. It is a completely nonsensical thing to say. Its like bringing your baby home from the Hospital and saying, “well, that’s all done then.”