Financing a Crumbling Infrastructure
Surprise, surprise… according to an article in the Woonsocket Call, the State is forecasting a significant financial shortfall.
Rhode Island needs approximately $600 million a year to fix and maintain its highways and bridges and otherwise operate the state Department of Transportation (RIDOT); its current revenue stream provides about $300 million.
Here’s a crazy idea, what if we were to cut back on our infrastructure needs? Perhaps develop a better public transportation system and allow people to move themselves around freely? Nope,
the Blue Ribbon Panel for Transportation Funding has suggested tolls on Route 95 near the Connecticut line tolls on I-95 closer to Providence; increased gas taxes; or hiking the sales tax. Right now, says RIDOT Director Michael Lewis, all of those, along with a few others, are just suggestions.
I for one will be upset if they increase sales tax to fund road projects. As far as I’m concerned our transportation infrastructure is already overbuilt and impossible to fund in any ongoing way. Director Lewis himself says
a big part of the problem is that “we don’t use a sustainable model” for highway maintenance and improvements. “Rhode Island is very dependent on the federal highway program, probably more so than any other state,” Lewis explained. “The federal program provides 80 percent of the cost of a project; we have to have 20 percent matching funds. We get approximately $200 million in federal highway money, we have to come up with 20 percent of that, which is about $40 million a year.”
The state borrows that money, so it has to pay debt service on that $40 million a year from its operating budget, which is also used to plow roads, sweep the highways, cut grass along the sides of the roads and in the medians, clear drains. Those funds come from the state’s gas tax and the debt service represents about half of what the state takes in from the gas tax each year.
If a private citizen operated in such a manner, we would never be approved for additional loans. Rather than focus on dramatically increasing revenue, let’s stop for a moment and think about how we could make a smaller infrastructure more efficient. Thomas Ardito, director of policy and communications for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and founder of the Center for Ecosystem Restoration, recently published an article in the Projo discussing some of the very ideas we’ve been promoting for a while now.
In the midst of this crisis [high oil and gasoline prices], however, lies a sterling opportunity for Rhode Island: the chance to capitalize on our small size, high population density and extensive coastline by developing a truly innovative, next-generation statewide transportation system. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it may be the single most important thing we can do to position the state for success in the 21st Century.
He proposes one of the possible mass-transit solutions could be high speed ferries. In reality, I think we need better, wide-spread mass-transit before we entertain the idea of a point-to-point solution. If people can’t easily get to where they are going once they get off the ferry, this solution will never take hold. But he continues to discuss two options we’ve discussed frequently.
Buses, of course, offer the cheapest and most practical alternative for improving mass transit in the near term, and the state deserves credit for maintaining the existing statewide system under the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). Yet the great failing of our current mass transit is that, for most commuters, it’s far slower and less convenient than driving, and RIPTA remains a poor cousin to the state’s road-building efforts.
To bring about a real shift in transportation patterns, our goal should be to make mass-transit and bicycling more convenient than driving. There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting on a bus in a traffic jam, as often happens on Route 95 now. The state should install high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on Route 95 and Route 195 (as on Route 93 in Boston) and establish special bus routes elsewhere. Drivers who sit idling, stuck in traffic, while buses and people car pooling zip by them in the HOV lane will soon change their habits. Providence is in dire need of safe, convenient bike lanes, and traffic management that places the safety of pedestrians ahead of the convenience of motorists.
I couldn’t agree more with these statements. Unfortunately, the current climate looks extremely grim for even continuing the current RIPTA infrastructure. An article in the Providence Business News indicates that
the rise in fuel prices has spurred consumers statewide to cut back on gasoline purchases, in some cases by taking the bus, Mensel noted. That has meant less income for the transit agency [RIPTA], which derives much of its revenue from the state gasoline tax.
Let’s get serious about change RI. It’s not going to be easy, people are going to have to change their habits. One thing is for sure, the current mode of operations just aren’t going to continue working.