PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration is quietly looking to fast-track $200 million in new borrowing to repair the “dangerous and crumbling” Viaduct bridges that carry I-95 North alongside the Providence Place mall, after a major jump in the cost of the project.
House and Senate bills filed at the request of the R.I. Department of Transportation suggest paying for the Viaduct Northbound by floating what are known as GARVEE bonds, which involves borrowing against future federal highway funding. (GARVEE is short for “Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle.”) The bill also allows the refinancing of older existing GARVEE debt.
In a two-page memo dated Monday, RIDOT officials warned, “The northbound portion of the I-95 Viaduct is dangerous and crumbling. The project needs to be addressed as soon as possible, but it is insufficiently funded.” The agency now estimates the Viaduct’s construction cost at $250 million, but said only $120 million is available for it under the governor’s 10-year RhodeWorks infrastructure plan.
The newly revealed price tag for the project is more than double what RIDOT had expected less than three years ago. A September 2016 RIDOT planning document shows the estimated cost of the Viaduct Northbound was only $110 million at that time. It suggested construction would begin in the spring of 2018 and be complete by 2021.
Asked why the cost had ballooned so much, RIDOT spokesperson Charles St. Martin said, “The estimate from 2016 was just that, an estimate. It was just for an in-kind replacement of the bridge.”
“The current, updated design includes the full bridge replacement and numerous other improvements to alleviate daily traffic congestion and improve safety by building dedicated lanes for on- and off-ramp traffic,” he said.
The memo did go on to say that issuing $200 million in 15-year GARVEE bonds “would ensure that RIDOT has enough funding to complete an improvement of the Viaduct and avoid replacing it in-kind or severely limiting the scope of the construction.” The total cost of the borrowing would be capped at $275 million with interest.
RIDOT said the borrowing would have a “minimal” impact on paying for the rest of the 10-year bridge-repair plan, with the cost of the extra debt service covered by the $120 million currently allocated to the Viaduct. In fact, the memo argues the new borrowing would “free up a considerable amount of additional funding,” projected at anywhere from $80 million to $140 million, “to facilitate the completion of other projects.”
The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on the proposal. Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, are sponsoring the legislation.
Both Senate leaders support the plan, spokesperson Greg Pare said.
“The legislation would enable the state to align funding for a major project to meet upfront costs in anticipation of federal funds expected to come in over time,” he said. “It is consistent with how other large projects have been funded. This is also an opportunity to take advantage of interest rates that are currently low but likely rising in the near future.”
House leaders have not yet commented.
Asked why such a sizable capital project was not included in Raimondo’s original 2019-20 budget plan or added to it with an amendment, Department of Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe said, “The legislation was submitted with the hope that it will be considered earlier than June” (when lawmakers are expected to pass the budget).
The original RhodeWorks legislation passed in early 2016 already authorized $300 million in GARVEE bonds for infrastructure projects after Congress upped federal highway funding. As of last year the state owed $642.5 million in outstanding principal and interest payments on GARVEE debt through 2031.
A spokesperson for General Tresaurer Seth Magaziner said he thinks the state can afford the additional GARVEE borrowing for the Viaduct project.
Part of the reason RIDOT sees room for more GARVEE borrowing is an increase in federal highway funding engineered in part by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who serves on the Appropriations Committee’s transportation panel, earlier this year. The agency says Rhode Island can expect plan on roughly $15 million more annually from Washington .due to the change
Rhode Island leaders have been concerned about the status — and cost — of the Viaduct for years. RIDOT says the collection of spans is the third-busiest interstate in New England, carrying more than 200,000 vehicles each day. The Southbound I-95 Viaduct has already been tackled.
“Built in 1964, the Viaduct’s structural deficiencies threaten critical infrastructure and the environment beneath it, including the Woonasquatucket River, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor rail lines, city roads, and Exit 22’s (off I-95) interchange ramps,” RIDOT warned in its latest long-term planning document.
The most recent vision for the Viaduct project proposes reconstructing six of its bridges, rehabilitating five others and constructing three new ones, as well as reconfiguring various ramps in an effort to rationalize traffic patterns.
RIDOT says it would use “a conventional design-build contract” for the project, and would also seek an award for it through the federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant program.
RIDOT is responsible for 8.73 million square feet of bridge decks across the state. Raimondo’s RhodeWorks plan — which calls for nearly $5 billion in infrastructure repairs, partly funded by new truck tolls — is aimed at getting the state’s bridge deck area to be 90% structurally sufficient, the minimum federal requirement, by 2025.
As of December, 76.7% of that deck area was structurally sufficient, according to RIDOT, up from 75.2% when the department began publishing monthly tracking numbers in April 2016. A total of 224 bridges were structurally deficient as of December, down from 236 a year ago.
Separately, a study released this week by the American Road & Transporation Builders Association found Rhode Island still had the worst bridges in the country as of last year, with the largest percentage rated structurally deficient. West Virginia, Iowa and South Dakota were ranked next-worse.