Special Commission gets broad overview of state's infrastructure ills
PROVIDENCE — The Special Legislative Commission brought together to address concerns with the state's infrastructure gathered at the State House for the first time Thursday afternoon, Sept. 26, receiving a broad overview of the problems Rhode Island faces as it attempts to rectify its crumbling roads and bridges.
The Commission, co-chaired by East Providence pols Helio Melo and Daniel DaPonte, the respective chairs of the House and Senate Finance Committees, received a briefing from Sharon Reynolds Ferland, the Fiscal Advisor to the House Finance Committee, and John Paul Verducci, a senior budget analyst for the General Assembly.
"I think it was very positive," Sen. DaPonte said of the meeting. "We have a challenge in front of us. There's no question about it. We've neglected our infrastructure for a couple of generations, at least. No one wants to pay more, but we have to solve the problem before a bridge collapses, and then people will be wondering why we didn't do anything about it."
The briefing included a wide range of information, which recounted the previous findings of similar committees, state and national data and projections on what it would cost Rhode Island to tackle the issue.
"We're not trying to reinvent the where here," Mrs. Ferland said. "We're just trying to bring together historical information for you to draw from."
Mr. Verducci led the presentation, which highlighted the four areas where most infrastructure money is spent — the Department of Transportion, the Turnpike and Bridge Authority, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and the Airport Corporation.
It was noted, the DOT has a budget of $468 million in the current fiscal year, 68 percent of which is derived from federal funds and that the TBA oversees the state's four significant bridges, including the Mt. Hope and Sakonnet in the East Bay. The tolling of the Sakonnet River Bridge was one of the main reasons for the formation of the Commission.
The toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge is meant to pay for its construction and upkeep. The prospect of tolls on other roadways was discussed briefly Thursday.
"The issue about the Sakonnet River Bridge is we have the 10-cent toll in place until April 1. We have to determine what the best way is going forward, whether the 10-cent toll works or if we have to go in another direction," Sen. DaPonte said.
Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Portsmouth, Tiverton), a Commission member along with East Bay colleagues Senators Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton) and Christopher S. Ottiano (R-Dist.11, Portsmouth, Bristol), asked if the notion of tolling Interstate 95 was still an option.
DOT Director Michael Lewis, also on the Commission, informed his cohorts that current Federal law prevents tolling of existing interstate highways. Rhode Island attempted to get a spot in a pilot program recently run by the Feds, but was not granted one of the three available spots. Those went to Missouri, Virginia and North Carolina, Director Lewis said, adding none has currently used its exemption to toll its interstate highways; I-70, I-80 and I-95, respectively.
Of the more interesting data presented, the Commission learned of the current state of revenues from the gasoline tax. Rhode Island's 33-cent gas tax, last adjusted in 2009, ranks it second-highest in New England behind Connecticut (49.3 cents) and just ahead of Vermont (32.2). The latter two were among eight states to raise their gas taxes during the current fiscal year. California increased its gas tax to 53.8 cents. Maryland upped its to 45.4.
Maine follows Vermont, ranking fourth in New England at 31.5 cents. Massachusetts' gas tax of 26.5 cents is fifth in the region with New Hampshire last at 19.6 cents. The New England average is 32 cents, the national 31.1.
Both Mr. Verducci and Mrs. Ferland said gas taxes are losing their effectiveness as the fuel efficiency of cars has improved. The advent of hybrid and electric vehicles also has decreased gas tax revenues as has the general decline in the economy and increase in unemployment rates. Mrs. Ferland also noted there seems to be no inclination locally or federally to up the gas tax rate — the Federal gas tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, has not been raised since 1993 — and the effective amount of money derived from it has dropped significantly.
Senator Ottiano questioned if data existed of the effects of pricing in neighboring states has on Rhode Island. Director Lewis said Connecticut's gas prices seem to influence those in the southern and western parts of the state while Massachusetts' prices seem to affect those in Providence as well as points north and east.
When asked how other states have combated the decrease in revenue, Mrs. Ferland said Virginia, for example, has instituted a flat, annual fee to owners of hybrid and electric vehicles. It has also changed its tax formula from a per gallon standard to one based on consumption. In addition, she said Oregon has introduced a mileage tax, where those who drive more pay more in surcharges.
"We need to prioritize and come up with a solution that is fair and equitable," Sen. DaPonte said. "We found out the gas tax is really outdated in terms of the effective revenue it produces. We need to look at other options. We heard how in Oregon if you drive more you pay more. Maybe heavier vehicles should pay more whether it's a surcharge or a higher registration fee. We may have to move in the direction that those who drive most pay more. How we fix this is a huge challenge, but at the end of the day we can't ignore the problem anymore. We have to face facts."
With gas tax revenue in decline, the Commission is tasked with finding additional means of funding what all agree is a massive problem with the state's infrastructure.
Of Rhode Island's 201 bridges, 71 are in the most urgent need of attention. The DOT estimates it would cost $322.2 million over five years to bring those bridges up to current standards. Also, as part of a needed overhaul of Routes 6 and 10 connector, 11 more bridges would be refurbished. The cost of the project is estimated to be in the range of a $500 million. All told, including the aforementioned projects as well as necessary resurfacing, the DOT projects it would cost some $928 million over the next five years to begin to remedy the state's infrastructure woes.
"I think this first meeting certainly helped," Sen DaPonte added. "My objective, at least as one member of the Commission, is to get as much information and feedback as possible, so we can move forward in a positive direction."
The Commission set its next meeting for sometime in mid-October where a more pointed discussion on the East Bay area is expected to be had.