VIDEO: Transportation projects on hold while state awaits federal action

VIDEO: Transportation projects on hold while state awaits federal action

Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis, left, and Deputy Director Phillip Kydd visited The Breeze offices last Thursday to explain the financial predicament the department finds itself in. (Valley Breeze photo by Tom Ward)
Diamond Hill Road intersection improvements delayed, Stone Arch Bridge may await funding

LINCOLN - Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis has a message for those traversing the state's shoddy and weatherworn roads: Get used to it.

Roads and bridges across the state, Lewis told The Breeze this week, aren't likely to get fixed anytime soon, because the department's funding sources are drying up and new potential sources of revenue - like the proposal to increase the Sakonnet River toll to around $5 - seem to lack the political support to become a reality.

RIDOT, he said, currently has $66 million in projects across the state ready to go this spring and no funds to start them. The department's major source of funding, the federal Highway Trust Fund, is expected to run out in 2014. A primary source of HTF money comes from federal gas taxes, which have not been raised since 1993, while construction costs have skyrocketed.

Watch Lewis explain why it's so difficult to get some local roads redone:

DOT typically gets $200 million a year from that source, money used for everything from bridge repair to litter cleanup. That means projects, such as improvements to the intersection of Mendon Road and Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket, will not be going out for advertising until Congress agrees on a new plan to nourish the account. And repairs scheduled for 2015, like construction on the historic Stone Arch Bridge in Slatersville, could also be delayed if a resolution is not quickly found.

"They'll act at some point; the question becomes when," said RIDOT Deputy Director Phillip Kydd. "The Highway Trust Fund goes belly-up this summer unless Congress acts."

It's a national problem, but Rhode Island's system for funding transportation only compounds the issue. Unlike some states, Rhode Island has no set fund for capital projects, and relies instead on federal sources.

The money the state does provide to DOT also comes from a gas tax - currently at a rate of 32 cents per gallon. But with citizens generally driving less, and cars becoming more fuel efficient, the state receives less revenue from the source each year.

The department must stretch the limited dollars from both sources to cover staffing, snow removal, vehicle maintenance and annual debt service to pay for borrowing from past projects.

Such bi-annual borrowing was the norm in Rhode Island for years, and RIDOT was accustomed to spending between $40 million and $50 million a year on debt service.

"The problem is that's a completely unsustainable model," Lewis said.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Lewis said, took action to get Rhode Island off that "addiction" to borrowing. But it seems the state does not have a back-up funding plan, and the situation is becoming increasingly urgent.

Of the 780 bridges in Rhode Island 20 feet or more in length, Lewis said 160 are structurally deficient at any given time.

Such structural deficiencies made headlines in North Smithfield in 2013 when DOT discovered extensive deterioration at the historic Stone Arch Bridge and reduced traffic to a single lane. The bridge crosses over the Branch River connecting Main Street to points along Route 5, and town officials say they were initially told construction on the project would begin this year. In January, they were told the project had been rescheduled for 2015 and vowed to take action to speed up the process, seeking help from local legislators if needed.

According to Rose Amoros, spokesperson for RIDOT, the Stone Arch Bridge is still in the design process, awaiting permitting and approvals from the state Department of Environmental Management along with historic coordination and right-of-way acquisitions. That process, Amoros said, is expected to be completed this year, with construction scheduled to begin in spring 2015.

Without quick congressional action, however, it looks like even the 2015 deadline is optimistic.

"It's dependent upon resolution of the congressional issue for any project to go out," said Lewis.

If a federal solution is not found by June or July, RIDOT officials say, the state will not be able to complete any new projects this year.

Among the list of $66 million in construction projects that are ready for advertising now, but have been deferred for lack of funding, is a $300,000 plan to improve the intersection of Diamond Hill and Mendon roads. The busy city intersection was deemed the "city's worst" in 2012, with 106 accidents.

If the problem isn't solved by Oct. 1, they say the state will also have to put off projects through 2015, potentially including the Stone Arch Bridge.

Kydd said he fears no action will taken in Congress until after the September primary, and that at some point, even ongoing projects will have to be halted.

"It's affecting our ability to advertise projects now," he said. "But by the end of this calendar year we won't be able to operate the machine."

State residents will still see some road work continuing - at least for now. RIDOT will spend $115 million on ongoing projects that were either already started, or have been targeted with earmarked dollars. But if a project isn't already on that targeted list, it looks increasingly unlikely that the state will be able to address it in the near future.

The department has little choice but to watch as road problems across the state add up, and this year's rough New England winter didn't help. On average, RIDOT spends $11.5 million each year on winter maintenance. This year, they've spent more than $13.5 million and the season is not yet through.

In spring, when it's time to address the extensive potholes created during the harsh season, DOT will only be able to provide temporary patch work, rather than the long-term resurfacing projects required to solve the issue. In northern Rhode Island, DOT officials are already aware of multiple problems, such as paving on Route 295 south that is beginning to unravel.

"It's a problem, but I don't have any money to do anything about it," Lewis said.

The issue also has a direct impact on the economy as contractors accustomed to taking on large state projects are gradually put out of work.

Even when funding solutions are finally found, it may not be the end of the department's struggle to juggle the massive need for major road repair across Rhode Island.

"The prioritization of projects is really going to be a challenge," said Lewis. "The needs are so great across the state that we have to be able to say 'no.'"

Comments

Something like 6 trillion spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. 1.5 trillion on the F-35 fighter jet that's not flying yet. You want war? Pay for it. No wonder the Feds are broke...all that spending backed up by Bush tax cuts.