RI's transportation follies

PROVIDENCE, RI – You don't have to be a civil engineer to notice that things aren't going smoothly on Rhode Island's highways and bridges. From the potholes gouged in our roads by a cruel winter to the crumbling bridges on Interstate 95, our long-neglected transportation system is in trouble. Rhode Island is scraping the bottom of the barrel among the 50 states in the amount of money we channel to road and bridge repairs. As is the case with many other shortcomings in our state, this problem was caused by a dearth of political leadership, short-term thinking at the State House and spending money that the state didn't have. For too many years, Rhode Island borrowed money to remain eligible for federal funding to build and repair roads and bridges. While the federal government typically sends millions of dollars here every year for roads and bridges, the national government requires the state government to kick in roughly 20 percent of the costs.

Instead of raising this money through taxes or fees, Rhode Island has for too many years essentially put the state share on a credit card by borrowing the money to make the federal match.

Well, now the credit card is maxed out. The result is that we now face $43 million in interest costs this year alone for road and bridge work that was done in the past. Nobody in the state's business community talks much about this burden on taxpayers.

This borrowing for transportation improvements went, for the most part, for things that most citizens like: New roads and bridges, the relocation of Route 195 through Providence, the gleaming new I-way Bridge and rail and road improvements to attract business to Quonset Point.

There are few complaints about highway spending because business leaders know this is necessary for economic growth. And an array of special interests benefit. The construction companies get contracts and the building trades unions get the jobs. The lobbyists and p.r. flacks take their cuts as they coax the bond issues through the State House thicket. Lawyers and bankers in the downtown office towers get the bond counsel and underwriting work. And the State House politicians brag about building and repairing roads while hiding the true cost of government from the voters.

Currently, the only revenue stream available for transportation financing is the gasoline tax. With gas prices spiraling and cars becoming more fuel efficient, this tax is a dwindling source of money. And Rhode Island already has a gas tax that is a dime a gallon above the Massachusetts rate, so raising the gas tax is not a realistic way to pay for future highway repairs.

Now, Governor Chafee, some legislators and policy researchers are trying to come up with a way to put state transportation on a pay-as- we-go-basis. Chafee has proposed channeling auto registration fees directly into a transportation funding pot. This would change the current system of taking registration fees and dumping them into the general fund, where they can be used for schools, health care or welfare.

The other source of money that is being looked at by state officials is to impose tolls, which Rhode Islanders probably aren't going to like, says Michael Lewis, state transportation director. The Claiborne Pell Bridge connecting Jamestown and Newport is the only toll road in Rhode Island.

Yet, tolls make up a big slice of transportation money in other New England states. Take the Massachusetts turnpike and you pay a toll. Drive Routes 93, 95 or the Everett Turnpike in New Hampshire and you pay a toll. New Hampshire, a state with roughly the same population as Rhode Island, collected $116 million in tolls last year.

Support for transportation as an economic fulcrum has been government policy since John Adams built the light houses along the Atlantic coast. These are investments in the future. Is it too much to ask the Smith Hill crowd to summon the political will to do the right thing and put our transportation financing on a sound footing.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.