On Election Day, Nov. 4, 2008, all Rhode Islanders will be asked to vote for Question 1, the transportation bond question. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) wants every voter to know that even in this economy we absolutely must say yes to this funding source.
RIDOT needs state funds, which traditionally are obtained through bonding, to get its Federal transportation funding. Without the $80 million authorized by the passage of this state bond, Rhode Island would have to return Federal transportation dollars totaling $436 million to Washington D.C. Those dollars would then be redistributed to other states. Rhode Island would then get nothing for its highways and bridges for the next two fiscal years.
Essentially all construction work would come to a halt as would future design, 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.
With both of these bridges currently posted at 18 tons and two axles, lack of funding could mean additional restrictions that could have major adverse impacts to rescue and fire vehicles, small trucks, and buses.
Other projects including improvements to Route 114 in Woonsocket and Cumberland, improvements to Route 44 in Smithfield and Glocester, and repairs to two bridges that carry Route 1 over Route 108 in Narragansett also would not be made.
Fewer construction projects equate to fewer jobs and there are economic ramifications that come with that including a loss of construction jobs. Less revenue means less spending and that can mean economic hardships for all of us.
Question 1 also ensures funding for alternative means of transportation. This bond provides $3.57 million to obtain $14.3 million in Federal funds for commuter rail. Higher gas prices are already shifting some motorists to train and bus service. Expanding commuter rail is the right thing to do to protect the environment and to help reduce congestion.
While the bond issue will not solve RIPTA’s immediate funding needs, approval of Question 1 would give RIPTA $3.645 million so that it can purchase new buses and/or rehabilitate the existing buses in their fleet. RIPTA could start spending these dollars next summer and continue to do so through 2011.
The Governor’s 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 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.
Question 1 must be approved to keep our transportation program running. Suggestions by the Blue Ribbon Panel will address the long term funding challenges and may even require new legislation.
Rhode Island is not alone in these difficult financial times. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oklahoma and even Hawaii, to name just a few, 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.
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. The needs keep growing but the dollars have not.
Approval of Question 1 not only keeps Rhode Island moving forward, but it can put us on a better course as improvements made today can steer us toward a healthier economy, a better quality of life, and a stronger transportation system.
Michael P. Lewis is director of RIDOT.