2013-10-31 / Front Page

$400M needed to fund spans

RITBA director outlines authority’s 10-year plan
By Tim Riel

At the Oct. 16 State House meeting of the special legislative commission charged with finding a way to fund the state’s four largest bridges, Buddy Croft of the bridge authority gave a presentation outlining how much funding is needed to maintain the spans.

Croft, the executive director of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, said $400 million is needed over the next 10 years to keep the Jamestown, Newport, Mount Hope and Sakonnet spans safe for commuters. Moreover, he said, the figure does not include debt service.

“Telephone-book numbers are needed to take care of these structures,” said Croft, alluding to the fact that nine-digit figures are involved.

The $400.7 million is the estimated figure that will be needed to maintain the spans between fiscal years 2014 and 2023. The bridge authority revisits its 10-year plan every two years. Currently, Croft said, the authority is working on a plan, but it hasn’t been adopted.

“These are unusual times for the turnpike and bridge authority,” he said.

Croft broke down the $400 million into eight categories. The biggest piece of the pie was $88 million, or 22 percent, for the protective coats and painting. Because the Environmental Protection Agency is stringent about the ocean beneath the bridges, rust, for example, can’t be allowed to fall into Narragansett Bay. Also, saltwater deteriorates bridges faster than freshwater does so a protective coating is applied more frequently.

“The bay is the best resource we have in the state of Rhode Island,” he said. “It costs a lot of dollars to make sure we keep it that way.”

About $84 million is used for routine maintenance, toll collections, operations, insurance and equipment. Almost $40 million goes to salaries and benefits for the bridge authority’s 75 employees, while $16 million is earmarked for inspections.

“It’s an integral part in how you maintain the integrity of the structures,” Croft said.

Another $3 million is used for off-bridge projects related to the approach roads, drainage and the administrative and maintenance buildings.

The superstructure costs $52 million, or 13 percent, over the course of 10 years. That includes the cables, suspenders and girders. Another $16 million is set aside for the substructure, including pilings, piers and anchorages. “The stuff that goes down to the water,” said Croft.

The eighth category is the bridge deck itself, which is basically the riding surface. It includes concrete, asphalt, the safety walks, joints and scuppers. The cost is $68 million, 17 percent of the 10- year plan.

According to Croft, there has been some talk that the entire bridge deck on the Newport span could be replaced in the out years of the current 10-year plan, meaning after 2023.

“It’s very costly,” he said. “If technology continues to advance, maybe it won’t be as challenging as it would appear to be at this point in time.”

Croft said the 10-year plan has many steps before it’s implemented. The board of directors is the first entity to crunch the numbers. The board refers to the state Department of Transportation and its engineering firm of record, PB Americas. When the board’s satisfied, it consults with Jacob Engineering to review the plan. Finally, the proposal is sent to First Southwest, one of the largest financial advisors in the country. Experts from the firm deal with debt coverage and credit-rating agencies.

After the authority’s board of directors has consulted with its stakeholders, it “chats with the public” and comes up with two or three scenarios.

As it stands right now, only one scenario keeps the authority’s books out of the red, according to Croft. If there is no increase on the Newport Bridge and the Sakonnet River span isn’t tolled, there will be a $220 million shortfall over the next 10 years. If tolls on the Newport Bridge are increased from 83 cents to $1 for Rhode Island EZPass users, and $4 to $5 for cash customers, a $75 million gap is projected. This scenario also takes into account gradual increases in the Newport toll every three years. The final scenario, freezing the toll on the Newport Bridge until 2020 and instituting a 75 cent toll for in-state E-ZPass customers and a $5.25 cash charge on the Sakonnet span, Croft said the authority will be able to raise the $400 million needed.

“We are not a perfect entity,” said Croft, “but we try our best. We have maintained the bridges fairly well. The best way for bridges to fall into disrepair is to not have the amount of funds to take care of them in an adequate fashion.”

According to Croft, if the Newport

Bridge had not been maintained properly in its 44 years of operation, it would cost $1 billion to replace.

“The bridge authority is fortunate to have a dedicated revenue stream that allows us to maintain the assets fairly well,” he said. “We are proud of the maintenance we have been allowed to do.”

The special legislative panel will meet again on Nov. 20 with the National Conference of State Legislatures. They will discuss what other states are doing to help fund transportation infrastructure.

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