Up here in this little corner of the U.S. we call New England, Rhode Island has long been regarded as the black sheep of the six-state region, and with good reason.
It's partly about its size. By land area, Rhode Island—or "Little Rhody," as it's dubbed here in the Northeast—is the clear "runt" of the Colonial American litter. More than that, it's the smallest state in the country. That we could overlook. What we can't forgive is its ridiculous attempt to compensate for its diminutive stature by adopting the lengthiest—and dare we say, most pretentious—official name of any state in the union: "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." (And, oh by the way, it's not an island.)
But there's more to it than that. Over the years, its size has often been reflected in the small-mindedness of its politicians. That trait has once again thrust Rhode Island into the national spotlight this summer thanks to a controversial truck-only highway toll program that took effect June 11.
Under the "RhodeWorks" plan, which was signed into law in 2016, the state now collects tolls from tractor-trailers traveling on I-95, the interstate highway that cuts through the state. It currently has two electronic tolling stations in place, one located in Exeter (where trucks are charged $3.50) and one in Hopkinton ($3.25). Plans call for as many as 12 more toll locations to be added over the next 18 months. The tolls are expected to raise $450 million to fund the state's 10-year initiative to repair damaged roads and structurally deficient bridges.
Politicians in the state hail it as innovative, important, and needed. They are no doubt seeking to earn favor with the electorate that delivers them to office. So far, the ruse seems to be working. Initial feedback is that the folks in Little Rhody love this little truck toll idea. Apparently, they like things that raise their cost of living.
How much money are we talking about? In the first month of the program, the R.I. Department of Transportation issued 133,000 toll charges, totaling an estimated $450,000, according to published reports. Assuming collections continue at that rate—and without factoring in the pending expansion to 12 additional roads in the state—we're talking over $5 million a year. That's a bill the R.I. politicos will tell you is being paid by those big, bad trucks that clog the tiny state's highways. That is a lie. They know it but apparently are banking on their constituents' remaining ignorant of the truth.
They may not be able to count on that ignorance for long. The trucking companies paying the tolls will inevitably pass the increase along to their customers—the companies that make the stuff Rhode Islanders buy at the store—who will in turn pass it along to their own customers. In this case, the citizens of Little Rhody.
So, the residents of Rhode Island are looking at a nearly $5 million annual increase in their collective cost of living. Yet they've been duped into thinking their leaders are doing them a favor.
Fortunately, and though they may not be aware of it, those misguided taxpayers have someone in their corner. That someone is the American Trucking Associations (ATA), which is suing Little Rhody in federal court. The ATA is asking the court to declare the RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme unconstitutional, arguing that it discriminates against interstate trucking companies and impedes the flow of interstate commerce.
Unconstitutional or not, the toll scheme smacks of politics at its worst, something Little Rhody does best.