2013-10-03 / Front Page

Legislative bridge panel meets for first time

Members hear alarming report about conditions of state roads, bridges
By Tim Riel

The special legislative commission charged with finding ways to fund Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure without additional East Bay bridge tolling learned from House finance advisors that the state’s roads and spans are in dire straits.

The grim news was presented at the State House on Sept. 26 during the panel’s first meeting. The commission was created in June at the 11th hour of the legislative session to settle a bitter dispute over tolling on the new Sakonnet River Bridge.

The board’s inaugural meeting acted as an overview, absent from public comment and suggestions. However, it was eye-opening to legislators who were told that less than 36 percent of the state’s bridges are adequate, and nearly 60 percent of the pavement is in poor condition.

“When did it get so bad?” asked Rep. Antonio Giarrusso, who serves East and West Greenwich. “Did it all crumble at once? Looking at this report, I’m afraid to drive home on some of these bridges.”

A presentation from Sharon Reynolds Ferland and J.P. Verducci, both budget analysts for the House advisory staff, took up the lion’s share of the 80-minute meeting. Ferland said she wanted to get everyone up to speed with the facts and figures compiled from previ- ous studies.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “These aren’t necessarily new issues.”

According to Verducci, there are 763 bridges in Rhode Island catalogued in the national inventory. Verducci said 163 were considered structurally deficient, 221 were functionally obsolete, and 101 were either weight restricted or closed. Only 272 bridges were graded sufficient.

“Overall,” he said, “Rhode Island’s ranks at the bottom.”

Transportation Director Michael Lewis said the situation was even worse than Verducci’s assessment. Federal guidelines consider a bridge as a span at least 20 feet long, but Lewis said the state has hundreds of bridges that are shorter.

“If you have a hole in the ground that’s 19 feet, it’s still a hole,” he said.

According to Lewis, there are 1,148 bridges greater than 5 feet in Rhode Island.

“That increases the challenge a little bit,” he said.

The special commission was created following the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s April decision to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge. The approved rates were supposed to take effect Aug. 1. They were 75 cents with a Rhode Island E-ZPass, $3.75 with an out-of-state E-ZPass, or a $5.25 cash rate. An uproar by East Bay residents and legislators, however, forced the General Assembly to make a snap decision before it recessed for 2013. For compliance reasons, lawmakers couldn’t axe the toll completely, so they decided to set a rate of 10 cents. The dime toll expires in April 2014 with the hopes that the legislative commission can find alternative funding in the meantime.

One reason the state is inadequately funding its transportation system is the gas tax. Rhode Island has the second highest gas tax in New England at 33 percent. (The U.S. average is 31.1 percent, while the highest is California’s 53.5 percent. Connecticut has the highest in New England by far, at 49 percent.) However, every year for the past decade, the revenue from the state’s gas tax has yielded less per penny. From $4.8 million in 2005, the state took in just $4.1 million in fiscal year 2013.

“Gas-tax revenue is a declining source,” said Verducci. “Without even including inflation, you’re already down $700,000 on a perpenny basis.

The reasons, according to Verducci, are the economy, high unemployment and lower consumption, since cars are getting more efficient. Some states, said Ferland, have mulled charging fees to owners of hybrids and electric cars.

“They’re not paying at the pump, but they’re wearing down the roads like everyone else,” she said.

According to the report, the state Department of Transportation is responsible for 3,000 lane miles of road and 611 of the 763 bridges on the national inventory. The money needed by the department to get the state’s transportation system up to speed is formidable. The five-year capital request to repair the bridges is $322.2 million. That would bring the state bridges in poor condition to less than 10 percent. The program would address 201 bridges, repairing 71 that are in dismal condition and improving 131 others. According to Lewis, if the work isn’t done, the 21.4 percent of structurally deficient bridges will double by 2020.

As well as the $322 million for bridge repairs, the department also needs funds to resurface the road and overhaul Routes 6 and 10. The total for the five-year capital plan for all three projects is just shy of $1 billion.

The General Assembly a few years back decided to transition from a borrowing system to financing expenditures with funds that are available. With the coffers unhealthy, lawmakers voting on new surcharges to fund road repairs. The biennial registration fee will increase $10 each year capping off at $90 in 2016; the annual registration fee will increase $5 each year capping off at $45 in 2016; and the license fee will increase $10 each year capping off at $60 in 2016.

Making matters worse, commission members learned from Lewis that the U.S. Highway Trust Fund will go into the red in a year. That would be grave, he said, because the Transportation Department’s annual spending plan is nearly 70-percent funded by the federal government.

“The Highway Trust Fund will reach a negative balance one year from now,” Lewis said. “What that means, in 2015, unless additional revenues are brought in at a federal level, there will be zero federal disbursement to the states.”

He then emphasized the point. “So we’ll drop from $200 million a year to zero,” added Lewis, emphatically saying “zero” while making the figure with his hand.

East Bay Sen. Louis DiPalma, who has been one of the more outspoken legislators against tolling the Sakonnet River span, believes this is going to be a long-term issue that affects the entire country.

“Just about every state is addressing this in some shape or form,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a state that doesn’t worry about how it’s going to address its infrastructure.”

He continued, “We’re probably not going to fix this in one year. We’re probably not going to fix this in five years. We’re probably not going to fix this in 10 years.”

Sen. Dan Da Ponte of East Providence, who co-chairs the board with Rep. Helio Melo, earlier in the meeting stressed the complexity of the issue. “I don’t believe there’s a silver-bullet solution,” he said.

The commission is expected to present its findings by Jan. 15. According to Melo, the board will wait until after Columbus Day to decide when it plans to hold its next meeting.

Following the reports, Buddy Croft, commission member and director of the bridge authority, summed up the numbers he had just heard. “It’s very, very daunting,” he said.

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