Rhode Island could become the only state in the nation to tax its residents for each mile they drive or institute the state's first interstate tolls under proposals made Thursday by a panel charged with finding ways to raise billions of dollars to fix crumbling roads and bridges.
Gov. Don Carcieri created the 12-member panel to recommend ways Rhode Island could pay to repair its rapidly deteriorating transportation infrastructure and run its public transit system amid a deep recession that has driven down tax revenue and pushed the state budget into the red.
Rhode Island currently spends about $354 million per year to maintain its transportation infrastructure -- roughly half of what actually needs to be spent, according to the report.
"All these items are painful," said Department of Administration Director Jerome Williams, co-chair of the panel. "There's nothing in there that's an easy fix."
Among the proposals:
-- Taxing state residents a half-cent for every mile they drive, which could raise $50 million annually. The rate could vary based on vehicle weight.
-- Imposing a $3 toll for cars and a $6 toll for trucks on Interstate 95 near the Connecticut border. The effort would start in 2014 and would raise an estimated $39 million annually. Additional tolls could be placed near the border with Massachusetts on Interstate 195 and near the northern ends of Interstates 95 and 295, which intersect across the border in Attleboro, Mass.
-- Charging tolls on all three bridges linking Aquidneck Island, which includes Newport, to the mainland.
-- At least doubling the $60 registration fee for passenger cars.
-- Raising the state gasoline tax by 5 to 15 cents.
-- Imposing a new tax on distributors of petroleum-based products, including gasoline and other fuels, paint detergent, antiseptics, nylons and plastics.
A Carcieri spokeswoman said the governor would not decide which recommendations -- if any -- to accept until receiving a final report, which is likely next week. Many proposals would require lawmaker approval.
The most novel idea is the driving tax. If the idea is adopted, residents would have to report their mileage and pay a fee when they register their vehicles every two years, said panel co-chair Michael Lewis, director of the Department of Transportation.
"The more you drive, the more you pay," Lewis said.
He said besides raising money for road repairs, the milage tax would discourage motorists from making unnecessary trips and reduce the harmful tailpipe emissions responsible for smog and global warming. Oregon experimented with a similar system but never fully implemented it.
Keith Stokes, executive director of the Newport Country Chamber of Commerce, seemed skeptical that lawmakers would support raising costs for motorists during a bad recession. Rhode Island and Michigan reported 9.3 percent unemployment rates in October, the worst in the nation.
He said bridge and highways tolls raise the costs for day trippers heading to Newport and could negatively effect the region's defense contractors and other firms that draw workers from outside Rhode Island.
"With the economy, we're dead in the water," Stokes said.