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Shovels Hover in Rhode Island Air as Stimulus Bill Passes

Fri February 27, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

Ready, willing and able. Did I mention ready?

The state of Rhode Island had prepared for the day when the Obama Administration would pass a federal stimulus bill earmarking tens of millions for state infrastructure repair and rebuilding projects, led by — but not limited to – bridges and highways.

In a CEG interview, Michael Lewis, director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, revealed that his state has been ready since October for these potential funds, knowing that a key component of their delivery is to have “shovel ready” projects – that is, projects designed, advertised and ready for bid.

This is critical because 50 percent of the stimulus money must be obligated to projects in the first 120 days after it is sent, or the states will lose the chance to use it.

RIDOT had identified some 15 to 50 projects in that capacity that must be bid within 120 days of receiving the stimulus money. The state has other projects ready to bid — beyond the $137 million — just in case other states default on having their infrastructure projects ready, causing the money to go back to the feds for re-allocation to states like Rhode Island, whose shovels hover in the air.

Here is the interview with Michael Lewis, director of transportation for RIDOT:

CEG: Rhode Island is getting $137 million, is that correct? And it is 100 percent federal money, right?

LEWIS: Right.

CEG: But there is a “Use it or Lose it” deadline. Explain that. Are you ready for this money?

LEWIS: We are ready for it. We go back to an October time frame. That’s when we first put together our program.

Earlier versions of the federal stimulus bill had restrictions, the money had to be obligated within 90 days, or in a certain short window of time. The final bill said that 50 percent of the money had to be obligated within 120 days, so we are well positioned.

What it means is that 50 percent of the money allocated to the states, or just shy of $70 million for Rhode Island, has to be obligated in 120 days [from the date it is issued].

So, the clock starts ticking within 21 days of the bill being signed to get money allocated into the financial system. From that day, we have to obligate funds.

Now what happens is, if any state is unable to obligate 50 percent, that money is swept back into the federal government and redistributed. But we are absolutely sure we are going to meet our obligations. And, further, we have positioned ourselves to claim some of that money, should any state default on that obligation.

CEG: How many direct construction jobs will this stimulus bill create in Rhode Island, by your estimation?

LEWIS: Using statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, as well as our own assessment of past dollars as it equates to work projects, we estimate that we will be producing 1,500 direct construction jobs first. But, in addition to that, there will be other jobs created as a result, 3,000 to 3,500 jobs.

Those [additional] jobs will run the gamut. Everything from laborers to heavy equipment operators, steel workers, electricians, carpenters, it runs the gamut, depending on the types of projects.

We are not just going to do bridges. We are doing paving work, guardrail work, sidewalk work, traffic mitigation work, etc.

CEG: With the Rhode Island economy failing and state government having a huge deficit, how big a deal is not having to match the federal funds in this stimulus package, the usual 80/20 fed-to-state-funding ratio?

LEWIS: It’s a big deal, as we are getting the $137 million without having to kick in the usual state portion of 20 percent. But, as the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation Report pointed out, over the cost of 10 years, there will probably be a $3 billion shortfall just to get bridges and highways repaired.

It is estimated we need some $200 million each year to do this, so the $137 million, while we our grateful, doesn’t even meet half our shortfall in one year. It’s a great jumpstart, we appreciate it, but it’s only a little more than half of what we need in one year.

CEG: Which projects are ready to go and “shovel ready?”

LEWIS: In order to meet the 120-day requirement, the projects need to be fully designed, with permits in hand, with right of way certificates in hand, so it has to meet all the requirements that the normal federal aid program would require.

So, in order to do that, we have had to use backlog of projects that were underfunded and which are already put through the planning process, already designed, with designs already in place.

Because of such a backlog of these [unfunded] projects, deferred over the years, we are able to take a lot of deferred projects, clean up their designs, get their permits in place and be ready to meet the time frame that bill has placed on us.

CEG: Which projects are advertised for bid? How many?

LEWIS: The total number is greater than 50. We have advertised on 14 or 15 of these projects. We need to advertise 8 to 10 projects per week. We have a constant “rolling review” of them, where the bids can be quickly evaluated, opened, a rolling review, so we can be sure we have met the requirements. We are on target, not only to meet this, but also to exceed that.

CEG: Are there enough local or area contractors to fill all the jobs throughout RI and the surrounding states, since this is a federal directive?

LEWIS: I think there are. Obviously, Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the country, neck in neck with Michigan. Vertical construction is suffering. But the bridge and highway industry has more capacity. This is an opportunity to bring new people into the industry; maybe cross train people. Certainly, this is an opportunity to fill the labor market.

I also think it’s important, though, that we don’t stop here. The Reauthorization Bill [for federal highway funds and projects] is coming up in Congress this year. Long term, for the foreseeable future, the highway and bridge program (kept) at an escalated level will make contractors plan for the long term, with heavy equipment and build up, with a sustained level of programs.

CEG: Tell me about your recent trip to Washington, D.C., in February? Who did you meet with and why?

LEWIS: On Feb. 11, I went down to Washington, D.C., with 50 of my DOT counterparts from all of the states. President Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called the meeting, but he was unable to attend. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood talked about the Economic Recovery Act and its relationship with national transportation infrastructure issues.

It was great. It was a very good meeting and an opportunity for the Obama Administration to pass the message to all the DOTs on the importance of economic stimulus and the administration’s commitment to investing in infrastructure across the country.

Also, it gave us a chance to tell how ready we are to spend the money, to identify the projects in states, critical to our local economies; also, to emphasize that we can’t stop with just this stimulus.

CEG: What are your highest priorities to repair in this state?

LEWIS: We have all categories of projects. The deficiencies in the bridge program in Rhode Island are among the worst in the country. We are investing in bridge rehabilitation, but that is not the only place the money is going.

Because we have been focusing on bridges that means everything else has taken a back seat. So, we are rehabilitating many miles of state highways in Rhode Island; those projects run the gamut, too.

We also have an opportunity to fix many, many sidewalks in the state, which are falling apart, creating a real hazard for pedestrians in our urban areas. We have projects to improve sidewalks and make them ADA compliant. We also are addressing high hazard traffic locations, traffic signal upgrades to address hazard management.

This $137 million is not the only money coming to us. We have other money coming as well, so the TransModal rail operation at the airport is well under way, the Sakonnet River Bridge, one of the state’s biggest bridge concerns, has been bid and is moving forward; the Pawtucket River Bridge on Interstate 95 in Pawtucket, [which is in disrepair and where truck tonnage has been limited for nearly a year] is scheduled to be advertised later in the summer this year.

We are moving forward with other key projects as well. You have to move forward.

RIDOT plans to use its $137 million in federal stimulus money to complete many important road and bridge projects. The following is a list of some projects already authorized to be advertised.

Project: Route 1 Median Landscaping Highway

Town: North Kingstown

Cost: $236,112

Project: Statewide Drainage C-2 Highway

Cost: $451,454

Project: Warren Avenue Revetment Highway

City: East Providence

Cost: $568,502

Project: Statewide Drainage C-1 Highway

Cost: $748,216

Project: Bridge Washington C - 11 Maintenance/Statewide

Cost: $984,378

Project: Traffic Monitoring Stations TMC Statewide

Cost: $1,052,723

Project: Stormdrain Retrofit - Outfall W-6 Highway Statewide

Cost: $1,276,556

Project: Bridge Washington C - 10 Maintenance Statewide

Cost: $1,391,634

Project: Resurfacing Route 246 Highway

Town Lincoln

Cost: $1,686,601

Project: ADA Bristol Ferry Road Highway

Town: Portsmouth

Cost: $1,695,877

Rubberized Chip Sealing - 2009 Research Statewide

Cost: $1,799,575

Project: Statewide Striping - East Bay Traffic Statewide

Cost: $2,287,180

Project: Statewide Striping - North Traffic Statewide

Cost: $2,417,764

Project: Route 138 1R Highway

Town: Tiverton

Cost: $3,289,410

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