DOT projects on hold while state awaits federal action

DOT 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)
Three on the $66 million list are in Pawtucket

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.

Crumbling roads and bridges across the state, Lewis told The Breeze, 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.

The DOT, he said, currently has $66 million in projects across the state ready to go this spring and no funds to start them, meaning they're currently postponed indefinitely.

Three major Pawtucket projects are on the list of those that are ready to be advertised this spring but are currently on hold due to the federal funding issue. They are:

* The planned reconstruction of Mineral Spring Avenue, at an estimated cost of $3.6 million. The 1.5-mile section stretches from Dorman Avenue on the North Providence line to Main Street in Pawtucket.

* The Pawtucket River Bridge detention basin, a complex project that will capture runoff from the new bridge as part of a recreational park. The cost is estimated at about $2 million. The detention basin was not part of the original $81 million contract for the new bridge, according to Lewis.

* And the Exchange Street/Downtown Enhancement project, a planned effort to improve traffic flow and make things in the downtown more attractive, at $500,000.

The DOT'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:

The DOT typically gets $200 million a year from the HTF, money used for everything from bridge repair to litter cleanup. That means projects will not be going out for advertising until Congress agrees on a new plan to nourish the account.

"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 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," said Lewis.

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

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

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

"It's dependant 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. If the problem isn't solved by Oct. 1, they say the state will also have to put off projects through 2015.

Kydd said he fears no action will be taken in Congress until after the primary and 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. The DOT will spend $115 million on projects that are 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 $13 million each year on winter maintenance. This year, they've spent $14.5 million and the season in not 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 repairs 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.'"