R.I. Voters Weigh Borrowing $87M for Transportation

Fri October 24, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Ray Henry - ASSOCIATED PRESS



PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) Rhode Island voters must decide whether to allow the state to borrow $87 million to improve its transportation infrastructure, including repairing and building bridges and highways, replacing public buses and extending a commuter rail line.

If approved, the referendum also would make Rhode Island eligible for $436 million in matching federal grants for transportation work.

A report by The Rhode Information Program in Washington warned that Rhode Island faces a $2.8 billion repair bill over six years. Political leaders have struggled to raise repair money for aging roads and bridges during a statewide recession that has triggered massive budget deficits and reduced tax revenue.

Michael Lewis, director of the state Department of Transportation, said putting off the repairs would only make the situation worse. Rhode Island also would lose the federal matching funds to other states if the ballot question is rejected, according to the department.

“The further we let it go, the worse they get and the more expensive,’’ Lewis said.

No groups have reported raising money to oppose the referendum, which has the support of Republican Gov. Don Carcieri.

Republican Rep. Robert Watson, a fiscal conservative, said he believed some voters may hesitate before taking on more state debt as the economy weakens. Still, he believes the transportation work is necessary.

“Everyone uses our roads and bridges, and they need to be safe and they need to be in [good] repair,’’ he said.

Already, the state needs to repair more than 200 mi. of roadway and more than 160 bridges. Trucks weighing more than 18 tons cannot cross the Pawtucket River Bridge on Interstate 95, a major corridor for commerce. Tourist buses critical to the economy of Aquidneck Island cannot use the Sakonnet River Bridge connecting Portsmouth to Tiverton.

“In order to maintain the infrastructure that’s needed for economic development, traditionally all states have borrowed to do that,’’ Lewis said.

Besides road repairs, the referendum would dedicate $22 million to buy new buses for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and $21 million to extend the commuter rail line from Boston to Warwick and North Kingstown.

Labor unions and the Construction Industries of Rhode Island, a trade group representing about 50 firms that do roadwork, are spending thousands urging voters to approve the referendum. The industry group estimates the spending would create about 5,000 construction or construction-related jobs, said its spokesman, Hugh Ryan.