PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- When you gas up in Rhode Island, you're paying the 13th highest gas tax in the nation, but less than a dime of that levy goes toward maintaining the roads and bridges you drive on when you leave the station.
Rhode Island collects 33 cents per gallon, which is second to only Connecticut in New England. Target 12 wanted to find out where that money is spent and how other states allocate their gas tax collections and pay for infrastructure maintenance and improvements.
Rhode Island Department of Transportation director Michael Lewis came up with a way to visualize the condition of the state's 3,000 miles of roads and 800 bridges. He suggested imagining one road that stretches from Providence to Seattle with a bridge every four miles.
"You'd hit bad bridges until Cleveland, Ohio and bad roads until Sioux Falls, South Dakota," he said.
Lewis told Target 12 that other states maintain and improve their infrastructures with a variety of funding. In addition to gas taxes, they use portions of other sales taxes, licensing and registration fees and tolls.
"Many states also have state funded capital improvement programs," Lewis added. "Rhode Island doesn't. It's frustrating. Massachusetts, other states, have a broader source of revenue."
In another transportation twist that is different from many states, the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority is funded with the gas tax. While you may not ride the bus, almost a third of the gas tax you pay goes to RIPTA. That added up to $41.2 million dollars in fiscal 2012.
Another third of the 33 cent per gallon pie pays down the state's $450 million of debt, accumulated from bond issues over the years that were needed to qualify for federal matching funds.
"This past election day," Lewis said. "Was one of the first I can remember when we did not have a (transportation) referendum on the ballot."
The state will pay that debt down to zero in the year 2035.
After subtracting RIPTA's cut and the 10 cents that goes toward debt service, less than 10 cents of the 33 cent per gallon tax, less than a third of what is taken in, is left to fund almost all of what RIDOT does.
Lewis tells Target 12 that the state took a big step toward stabilizing the amount of the tax used for the debt by increasing license and registration fees starting next year, and dedicating the increase to the matching funds needed for federal grants. So, he hopes the days of borrowing to qualify for help from Washington are over.
"We stopped the bleeding," he said, crediting his boss, Governor Lincoln Chafee. "That was very important."
But expanding state funding beyond the existing gas tax to make your drive smoother and safer is another problem in a state with annual rivers of red ink.
A state ‘blue ribbon' study, titled Rhode Island's Transportation Future , that is now four years old, offered a series of ideas about how to broaden RIDOT's base of funding.
Increasing the gas tax and pitching in some of your sales tax are on that list.
"But that's up to the lawmakers," Lewis said, gesturing to the State House across the street from his office.
All of Massachusetts' registration and licensing fees go to the state's Department of Transportation and that's another idea that could help Rhode Island.
"We could use the $60 million," Lewis said. "But the General Assembly would have to take that from somewhere else. Those are tough decisions."
Lewis also pointed out that while Massachusetts has a broader base of transportation revenue, they have debt and other issues tied to their roads and bridges.
Then, there's the idea of tolls, submitted by RIDOT in June of 2011 and rejected by USDOT last February.
"Have the federal government change the law," Lewis suggested, adding that he's not a big fan of tolls unless they're necessary. "So that the state can make that determination. Right now, we can't."
Optimistically, Lewis points out Rhode Island's interstates are said to be in relatively good shape.
The flip side is the amount of money it would take to bring the entire Rhode Island system up to speed; $285 million dollars in additional spending a year for 10 years according to that study from 2008.
Copyright WPRI 12
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