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A toll gate on Interstate 95?

As Rhode Island continues to wrestle with massive deficits, we're starting to hear some novel suggestions about how to deal with the situation. Bob Walsh has floated a few concepts, such as privatizing a 10 percent chunk of the state Lottery and putting a one-way (incoming) toll booth at the point where I-95 leads from Connecticut into Rhode Island.

Yesterday, there was a provocative letter in the ProJo on the latter subject: 

Here’s a very smart way to help address the large structural budget deficit Rhode Island faces: Set up tollgates, with electronic toll-collection technology, on Route 95 in the far southwestern part of the state. The rationale and benefits of doing this are the following:

• It would raise considerable annual income for the state. As I do not work for the state Department of Transportation and do not have access to official data, I can only guess the income potential for the state, but it would seem to be substantial. A $4 toll applied to an average of 3,000 vehicles an hour (number to be confirmed by the DOT) would generate $105.1 million in annual revenue, about 25 percent of the budget deficit projected for fiscal 2009. This is $1.05 billion in new state revenue over the next 10 years.

• The costs would largely be borne by non-residents of the state. By placing tollgates in the far southwestern part of Route 95, near the Connecticut border, would mean most Rhode Islanders would not pay this toll on a regular basis, i.e., as part of their normal commutes. It would largely be paid by the millions of non-residents who drive through Rhode Island each year as they make their way to Boston, Cape Cod, New York and other points beyond. It is morally and economically justified as a tax on the costs that Rhode Island bears from non-residents from the highway damage and pollution they cause driving though our beautiful state.

• It is a moderate measure. Many other states have numerous tollgates that generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues a year for their residents. The Maine Turnpike (Route 95) is a toll road, and so is the New Jersey Turnpike. Delaware, Maryland and New York all have highway tolls. So does New Hampshire. To put a single toll-gathering spot in our state would not be excessive. It would be a minor inconvenience to most Rhode Islanders.

• It is consistent with promoting a “green” society. In the current high-gasoline-price environment, which we may face forever, any additional cost to driving, no matter how marginal, may lead individuals to take buses to New York or Amtrak to Philadelphia. When such decisions are made, our environment wins.

It would seem to me that this would be a “no brainer” for Rhode Island — huge additional state income at very little cost. The only people who would be materially hurt would be residents who live near the tollgates and who may commute regularly through them. This could be easily addressed through a targeted rebate on their Rhode Island income taxes. So the only question seems to be which state legislator is going to jump at this opportunity to sponsor this and get the credit of being Rhode Island’s “$100 million man.” I can’t see any better time to act than now.

DAVID MAZZA

Providence

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