The big point pushing Sakonnet tolls, Governor Chafee has said all along, is to enable Rhode Island to finally cease borrowing to fund its bridge maintenance work.
It is critical, he repeats whenever pressed about tolls, for the state to climb out from beneath the mountain of debt that now cripples efforts to keep those bridges upright.
So it came as a surprise last week when the governor’s budget proposed one of the biggest bond issues ever attempted by this tiny state.
He wants to borrow $125 million to beef up URI’s School of Engineering and another $75 million for environmental matters, $40 million for mass transit and $35 million for arts and cultural projects. Grand total of borrowing in his plan — $275 million.
Gov. Chafee’s own Department of Transportation website has lots of bad things to say about debt —at least where bridge maintenance is concerned:
“Continued borrowing has driven our debt to the point where half of RIDOT’s gas tax revenue has to be spent on debt” (but the Governor and Assembly) … passed critical reforms to put Rhode Island on a path to get off its dependency on debt … Even with important changes to eliminate future borrowing, it will take decades to pay down the accumulated debt … Additional funding sources, such as tolling revenues, will give the department more money to put into projects as it eliminates prior debt …”
So, through great sacrifice by toll payers in one corner of the state, he’d wean the state of transportation borrowing.
And in place of that debt he’d add much more new debt — for which those toll payers would bear the same repayment burden as everyone else.
The governor’s fiscal policies are a bafflement, a series of contradictions:
• Debt is drowning us so we need tolls, but now we need to take out new loans — gigantic ones;
• It’s time to cut taxes for struggling businesses, yet tolls — really big ones for tourists and businesses that rely on trucks—are the answer …
As he leaves office, Gov. Chafee seems intent on cementing a legacy for himself — at any cost to those who live in these towns.