PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Transportation on Monday lowered its estimate of how much the state would save by adopting Gov. Gina Raimondo’s tolling plan, after acknowledging an error in its cost estimate for a major project.
RIDOT officials had said the governor’s RhodeWorks proposal – to borrow $600 million for a “surge” in bridge projects and pay the bond back with truck toll revenue – would save a net $612 million after interest by lowering construction costs overall. On Monday, they revised the estimated net savings down to $595 million.
The reason was an error – flagged by WPRI.com – involving the Henderson Bridge, also known as the Red Bridge, which connects Providence’s East Side and East Providence over the Seekonk River. Its deck area of almost 237,000 square feet makes it one of the largest structurally deficient bridges in Rhode Island.
Estimates of the Henderson Bridge project’s cost have been all over the place in recent months, a review of RIDOT documents shows.
In June, RIDOT officials gave the House Finance Committee three estimates for the cost of repairing the Henderson Bridge: $118 million over four years (2025-2028) under the governor’s original truck-toll plan; $120 million over six years (2027-2032) without additional revenue; or $142 million over four years (2025-2028) under a revised version of the toll plan.
Last week, however, RIDOT officials gave WPRI.com new spreadsheets that put the cost of the Henderson Bridge project significantly higher: $171 million over six years (2025-2030) if revenue from truck tolls is used on a pay-as-you-go basis, rather than to pay off the $600-million bond.
The spreadsheets also included no estimate of how much the Henderson Bridge project will cost if RhodeWorks is adopted in full, meaning with the bond.
David Fish, RIDOT’s acting chief engineer, said Monday that none of the estimates are accurate. The actual cost of the Henderson Bridge project is now estimated to be $154 million over six years (2025-2030) under either version of the truck-toll plan, he said.
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So what happened?
Fish said the $120-million Henderson Bridge estimate provided to House Finance back in June was “an old number” based on average prices applied to the size of the bridge. The average prices used in that estimate were a year or two old, and adjusting those for inflation led to the new estimate released Monday: $154 million.
As for the $171-million estimate shown in last week’s spreadsheets, Fish said that was caused by a simple error: the $154-million figure was accidentally adjusted for inflation a second time, bumping it to $171 million, by someone who didn’t realize the adjustment had already been done.
Fish also acknowledged RIDOT’s internal planning documents call for the Henderson Bridge project to be undertaken regardless of whether the truck toll revenue is used to pay off the $600-million bond or on a pay-as-you-go basis, even though last week’s spreadsheets only showed the cost under the latter scenario. The project was left off the bond spreadsheet because under that scenario it’s not needed to get Rhode Island’s bridges to 90% structurally sufficient by 2025, he said.
Put another way, RIDOT expects to spend $154 million on the Henderson Bridge starting in 2025 regardless of how the toll revenue is used, but last week the cost was only reflected under the pay-as-you-go project scenario. RIDOT says without the $600-million bond, Rhode Island’s bridges won’t hit the 90% mark until 2034 and the Henderson Bridge project will have to be done to get there.
“We’ve been getting into some confusion with how we explain it,” Fish said. “Our criteria for estimating the total cost of the program, rather than using the length of the program, has been using what it takes to get to 90% sufficiency. Under RhodeWorks we get to that by 2025.”
RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said the Henderson Bridge issue was an isolated error, and that the other estimates shown in last week’s spreadsheets have now been “triple-checked” for accuracy. The only other discrepancy identified is with Bridge Group 51, which involves 10 bridges on Route 37 in the West Bay; the correct cost for that group is $119 million over four years (2022-2025), he said.
The project cost estimates are crucial to the Raimondo administration’s case for RhodeWorks, because they underlie the governor’s controversial proposal to float the $600-million toll-backed bond, which would yield $500 million up front for bridge repairs.
RIDOT estimates the state would need to make an additional $578 million in interest payments over 30 years to pay off the $600-million bond in full, bringing its total cost to $1.16 billion. But the agency also estimates that by allowing bridges to be fixed before they deteriorate further and become much more costly to repair, the bond would save about $1.2 billion in construction costs – for a net savings of $595 million after interest, using the revised Henderson Bridge estimate.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi