By a more than 3-1 margin, Rhode Islanders approved a vital transportation bond question on Nov. 4 that will ensure that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) will continue to get hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to finish its ongoing highway construction projects.
Bond Question 1 authorized some $80 million from state coffers to be used to match federal funding for various highway, bridge and transportation projects, many of which are under way and nearly finished.
If the referendum had not passed, Rhode Island stood to lose more than $436 million in federal funds, which would have likely been channeled to other states for their various projects.
The state would have had to return federal transportation dollars to Washington, D.C., and would have gotten nothing for its highways and bridges for the next two fiscal years, according to RIDOT Director Michael Lewis.
“Thank you to the voters who chose to vote ’yes’ on Question 1 on Election Day,” said Lewis on the new RIDOT Web site. “Approving this transportation funding will give Rhode Island the ability to take $80 million in state funds and match it with $436 million in federal funds over the next two years. Funding for RIPTA buses and commuter rail has also been secured. Construction on highway and bridge projects, bike trails and greenways and mass transit projects will continue, improving the quality of infrastructure and life for residents and visitors of the Ocean State.”
According to Lewis, all RIDOT construction work would “come to a halt” as would future design and engineering and non-essential maintenance. “Without passage of Question 1 the Sakonnet River Bridge replacement project could not be completed. The replacement of the weight-restricted Pawtucket River Bridge on I-95 north and south would stop,” he said.
The approval of Question 1 also ensured funding for alternative means of transportation. The bond provides $3.57 million to obtain $14.3 million in federal funds for commuter rail.
“Expanding commuter rail is the right thing to do to protect the environment and to help reduce congestion,” added Lewis.
Other RIDOT officials were ecstatic with the results. The bond measure was approved by 289,705 voters, or 76.6 percent.
“We were very pleased. We do want to thank the voters of Rhode Island,” said Kazem Farhoumand, chief engineer of RIDOT. “We were cautiously optimistic that it [the Bond Referendum] would pass. We know that highway users, infrastructure users, of our state already know the conditions of our roads and bridges. There has been increased awareness of this.”
He cited Gov. Don Carcieri’s recently formed Blue Ribbon Panel for Transportation Funding, consisting of transportation and design experts, put together in April. The panel was organized partially to address the future needs of the state and increase public awareness.
The Blue Ribbon Panel for Transportation Funding is working to have a report ready by the end of November outlining alternative funding sources that will help buoy both RIPTA and RIDOT.
“It is important to understand that our current budget is based on available funds and not on our needs and that needs to be changed,” added Farhoumand. “If it did not pass, basically, it would have bad ramifications on the entire program, both projects under design and under construction. Having it pass, we’ll be able to go through with programs for the next couple of years.”
Beyond the RIDOT projects, Farhoumand discussed the large economic impact on the state, including the creation of an estimated 300 or more construction jobs, the sale of materials, retail sales, fuel sales, etc.
“I have heard it is estimated that for every $1 million spent, 15 jobs are created,” said Farhoumand. “It will have a huge impact, not only for infrastructure, but for the economy of our state. For every state dollar, the fed will bring $4.”
The chief engineer added that the state had borrowed money against future revenues for several of its biggest projects, including the $610 million Interstate 195 bridge project, dubbed the IWAY, and the $130 to $150 million needed to replace the old Sakonnet River Bridge through Tiverton/Portsmouth, R.I.
Farhoumand pointed out that Bridge 550 over the Pawtucket River Bridge, carries Route 95. It has been posted, with a weight limit of up to 18 tons (16 t).
As for the Union Avenue Bridge in Providence, which carries Union Avenue over Route 10 out of Providence into Cranston, R.I., Farhoumand added, “If you notice, we are using timber to hold the bridge up, but the bridge is safe.”
“It is obvious that current funding revenues can no longer keep up with the aging infrastructure needs and decisions must be made to prevent the system from drowning,” added Lewis.
Rhode Island is not alone in these difficult financial times, Lewis has said. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oklahoma and even Hawaii, are struggling with the same funding challenges. Nationally, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said that if states were to immediately repair or replace just their deficient bridges identified in the National Bridge Inventory it would cost approximately $140 billion.
“State and federal transportation dollars have been spent wisely in the past to improve the quality of life for all Rhode Islanders. A few examples of these transportation investments include the new IWAY, the Washington Bridge, and the new roadway to Quonset Point Davisville, Route 403,” added Lewis.
“But when Rhode Island is faced with 61 posted bridges that can carry only limited weight, 11 closed bridges, 222 functionally obsolete bridges that no longer meet today’s design standards, and 164 structurally deficient bridges that are safe for travel and must be vigilantly monitored, inspected and maintained, it illustrates how the department has not had sufficient funding for years.”