Senate set to OK borrowing $200M for I-95 Viaduct bridge project

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Senate is poised to approve $200 million in new borrowing to rebuild the five decaying Viaduct bridges that carry I-95 North past the Providence Place mall.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the borrowing plan earlier this week, and the full Senate has scheduled a vote for next week. House leaders appear to have more reservations about the plan, with some grumbling about why such a pricey proposal was not submitted as part of the governor’s budget.

The R.I. Department of Transportation requested the additional funding after the Viaduct project’s cost jumped from $120 million to $250 million. RIDOT Director Peter Alviti attributes that to an expansion of the project’s scope from only fixing the bridges to also alleviating traffic and safety problems with the current configuration.

“It is the most significant and critical piece of highway infrastructure in Rhode Island,” Alviti said at a House Finance Committee hearing last month. “It has been structurally deficient since 1986, when a man-sized crack was found in one of the girders supporting the structure.” (Timber has been installed on the underside of the structure to prevent debris from falling and hitting cars and people below.)

RIDOT’s plan is to float $200 million in what are known as GARVEE bonds, which involves borrowing against future federal highway funding. (GARVEE is short for “Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle.”) The agency says there is more room to borrow thanks to a recent increase in funding engineered in part by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who serves on the Appropriations Committee’s transportation panel.

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 section of the Northeast Corridor, carrying about 220,000 vehicles each day even though it was designed for only 57,000. (The Southbound Viaduct was already repaired, a project completed in 2017.)

Alviti said the current design of the Viaduct — which stretches from the Broadway exit to the overpasses for Route 146 — causes roughly 200 accidents a year as drivers weave around each other trying to simultaneously enter I-95 and exit for Route 146.

“A simple replacement will lock in the existing congestion that exists for another 100 years,” he told lawmakers.

The $250 million expanded design will “recreate it in a way that eliminates all of those safety and congestion issues, so that when we complete the construction of it not only will it be a new build without structural deficiencies but it will also be a new infrastructure that will operate efficiently and eliminate over 96% of congestion and all the safety issues we currently have that we deal with on a daily basis,” he said.

Rhode Island has floated GARVEE bonds twice before. In 2003, the state borrowed $710 million against future federal highway funding to cover five major projects, including the Iway, and then in 2016 the state borrowed $300 million to help pay for bridge projects as part of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks initiative.

In a letter to House leaders last month, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said he believes the $200 million proposal is “affordable” under the state’s debt guidelines, though he also said it is likely to max out the state’s ability to tap GARVEE financing through 2024 “unless there is an increase in federal reimbursements or other revenues to support additional bonding.”

“As with any public infrastructure project, the power to issue public debt must be exercised with care,” Magaziner wrote. “RIDOT has put forward a thoughtful proposal that will help Rhode Island repair aging infrastructure in a way that is affordable for the state.”

RIDOT is also seeking federal grants to help defray the Viaduct project’s cost, though so far that effort has been unsuccessful: two applications have already been denied. The agency is now making a third attempt, applying for $75 million in federal grant funding, and hopes to hear back by the end of the year.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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