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Rhode Island Lawmakers Attempt to Solve Federal Highway Funding Gap

Nearly half of the 1,100 miles of state-maintained roads are in fair or worse condition, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Wed March 11, 2015 - Northeast Edition
Jennifer McDermott - ASSOCIATED PRESS

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) Rhode Island has not experienced as precipitous of a drop in federal highway dollars as other states have, but its share of the funding is still not enough to address an aging network of roads, highways and bridges.

Nearly half of the 1,100 miles of state-maintained roads are in fair or worse condition, according to the state Department of Transportation.

About 20 percent of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient. Eight of the 11 bridges at the interchange of Routes 6 and 10 are more than 50 years old and in poor condition, the DOT said.

“The rate of decay is faster than the rate of repair,’’ said outgoing DOT Director Michael Lewis. “We lose ground every year.’’

In an era in which federal money for such projects has remained stagnant or declined, a large influx of new funds is unlikely. Rhode Island lawmakers, like lawmakers nationwide, are searching for ways to fill the gap.

Gov. Gina Raimondo said Rhode Island needs to embrace innovative financing approaches where necessary, and think broadly.

“We need to take a comprehensive look at solutions, everything from public-private partnerships to tolling,’’ she said. “We also need to ensure that we are delivering highway and transit projects quickly and cost-effectively, so that we get the maximum benefit from the federal funding provided.’’

Figures compiled by The Associated Press show the amount of inflation-adjusted federal highway money available to Rhode Island fell by 4.6 percent from 2008 to 2013. Nationally, the funding declined 10.9 percent, on average, on an inflation-adjusted basis.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said the impact on Rhode Island is still significant because the state relies heavily on its federal resources and its infrastructure is older.

The state receives about $220 million a year in federal funds for highway, bridge and transportation projects, which is the bulk of the funding used for that work.

Last year the General Assembly created a fund for transportation infrastructure projects and gradually redirected vehicle-related fees that go to the state’s general fund to it. A contentious new toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge was eliminated, but some vehicle fees went up and a 1-cent gas tax was established, starting July 1, 2015, to raise revenue.

“Rhode Island has been addressing its own transportation funding shortfalls with increased fees and a dedication of a greater share of existing resources to maintaining and restoring our infrastructure,’’ House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said. “This will help diversify the state’s resources in the long term, but there is no short-term substitute for federal highway funds.’’

State Sen. Louis DiPalma said the state needs to look at alternatives to the gas tax for transportation upgrades. He plans to introduce a bill this session to create a special legislative commission to work on the issue.

“I’m hopeful that Congress will do something about transportation funding, but we also need to take matters into our own hands,’’ he said.

Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate transportation subcommittee, said he’s working to get federal funding for the “huge’’ list of deferred maintenance projects. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said he’s trying to get a federal grant to repair the antiquated interchange of Routes 6 and 10.

“We’re just going to let these bridges and roads crumble? And then 10 years from now, 20 years from now, somebody else can figure out what to do about it? I think we should do it now,’’ Reed said. “Or you’re going to see, with increasing frequency, bridges that can’t be used.’’

Raimondo said Rhode Island needs “the very best highway and transit infrastructure’’ to attract people and businesses to the state, create jobs and strengthen the economy. She said her forthcoming budget will outline more specific proposals.

“Fixing a bridge or repaving a road, these are the basic minimum services that government must provide,’’ Raimondo said. “We need certainty on future transportation funding and we need to fix our aging roads and bridges.’’

Related: Federal Highway Trust Fund Cash Dwindles for W. Va.

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