PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As the RhodeWorks program nears its five-year anniversary, Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges are slowly improving — even as a legal cloud continues to hang over the network of truck tolls helping to pay for the work.
A Target 12 review of quarterly reports issued by the R.I. Department of Transportation shows 79.7% of the state’s 8.7 million square feet of bridge deck area was structurally sufficient as of December, up from a low of 74.4% in October 2016.
Over the same period, the total number of bridges listed in poor condition has fallen from 247 to 189.
Still, the state has a long way to go to meet the goal that Gov. Gina Raimondo set when she began her push for RhodeWorks in May 2015: to get Rhode Island’s bridges to 90% structural sufficiency within 10 years. And the state still ranked 50th out of 50 for bridges last year on the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s annual list.
RIDOT Director Peter Alviti says he remains confident the state will hit the 90% goal by 2026, especially after completion of the massive 6/10 Connector reconstruction project, which he expects to be mostly done by the end of 2022. And he notes that the progress so far is on par with what his agency forecast when RhodeWorks was being debated, which was 79% sufficiency by 2020.
“Everybody that rides the roads probably never saw as many bridges being fixed as they have in the last five years,” Alviti told Target 12. “In fact, while the number of deficient bridges continued to increase in prior years, once we enacted RhodeWorks and started implementing the 10-year mission we turned the tide, and the number of deficient bridges has been going down steadily.”
Changing the trajectory for RIDOT’s bridge network was a crucial part of Raimondo’s pitch for RhodeWorks, which the legislature approved in February 2016 after months of wrangling. And its success or failure will play an important role in assessments of the two-term Democrat’s legacy once she leaves office, which could happen within days as she awaits confirmation as President Biden’s commerce secretary.
RhodeWorks is a $4.7 billion 10-year infrastructure program that funds major repairs to the state’s bridges and roads through a mix of existing funding, borrowing and new tolls on large commercial trucks. As part of the program, Raimondo and Alviti also overhauled how RIDOT manages projects in an effort to keep them on track, and made a new commitment to ongoing maintenance in an effort to preserve structures longer.
“She had a lot of courage to take those steps, because the steps we had to take to put RhodeWorks into effect really affected a lot of people, a lot of the way we do business,” Alviti said. “It affected our contractors, the labor market – jobs – and she had a lot of courage to take that on, where I think past administrations were not willing to do the more courageous things.”
RIDOT’s budget has grown enormously since RhodeWorks took effect: the department’s annual spending soared from $394 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year to over $600 million in the current budget. Yearly outlays for construction contracts alone have more than doubled, hitting $294 million in the last fiscal year.
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, were two of the sponsors of the RhodeWorks plan in the General Assembly, and say they are pleased with the results.
“Our deplorable road and bridge conditions require continued investment. Improving our infrastructure is good for Rhode Island residents and businesses,” they told Target 12. “RhodeWorks has enabled us to reinvest in our critical road and bridge infrastructure. Acceleration of these projects, which otherwise would have taken many years longer, is saving the state money while putting Rhode Islanders to work in quality construction jobs.”
(House Minority Leader Blake Filippi, R-New Shoreham, had not yet responded to an inquiry about the program as of press time.)
Michael DiBiase, who led the R.I. Department of Administration during Raimondo’s first term and is now head of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council think tank, said Rhode Island leaders have struggled to maintain sustainable funding of transportation projects “for a very long time,” usually relying on bonded debt to cover costs.
“In my memory, there has never been a general revenue appropriation for transportation in Rhode Island,” DiBiase said in an email, saying that differs from the practice “in the majority of states.”
Lawmakers began taking steps to reduce transportation borrowing in 2011, he said, allotting RIDOT a larger share of fees paid to the Division of Motor Vehicles as well as indexing the gas tax to rise with inflation. RhodeWorks continued that effort with its most controversial provision: the truck tolls.
The tolling program got off to a slower-than-expected start, with the first gantry not coming online until June 2018, more than two years after RhodeWorks was signed into law. Since then, 11 more tolling locations have begun operating, and monthly toll revenue has climbed from $561,000 at the end of 2018 to $2.8 million at the end of 2020.
Alviti insists the tolling program will hit its original goal of roughly $45 million per year in revenue once all the locations are up and running. The two that aren’t collecting yet – one constructed but inactive on the I-195 Washington Bridge, the other still to be built on the I-95 Viaduct – are slated to begin operating later this year.
“The good news is that it’s doing precisely what we wanted it to do,” Alviti said of the tolling program. He added, “There is no diversion as people were trying to assert early on, and the technology worked the day that we flipped the switch on each one of them.”
(While as of Tuesday RIDOT’s website said there will be 12 toll locations when all is said and done, a spokesperson confirmed that is inaccurate; there will actually be 13.)
Trucking industry keeps fighting in federal court
Yet that ongoing flow of toll money into RIDOT’s coffers could come to a sudden halt if the trucking industry is successful in court.
“The program remains under the long shadow of the pending legal challenge,” said DiBiase.
In 2018, a group of plaintiffs including the American Trucking Associations and Cumberland Farms filed a federal lawsuit challenging the truck-only tolls as unconstitutional for singling out one type of vehicle and penalizing out-of-state trucks over in-state ones.
The trucking industry lost a first round in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island in 2019, but later got the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to reverse that ruling, sending the dispute back to the lower court in Providence.
In September, Rhode Island U.S. District Judge William Smith declined the industry’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop toll collection, but he acknowledged in his ruling his decision was “a close call.”
Christopher Maxwell, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, declined to comment for this report, saying he wanted to keep the focus on the lawsuit. But last May he declared in a statement that “our state’s leaders, specifically Governor Raimondo, have devalued and needlessly denigrated our industry.”
“Trucks are an integral economic driver of our state and we hope that our citizens can rise above the baseless rhetoric and recognize our industry’s contributions,” he added.
It remains unclear how much longer the litigation will drag on before reaching a resolution.
Court filings had suggested the two sides were heading toward a trial in the late winter or early spring. But lawyers for the state have now appealed to the 1st Circuit in an effort to block subpoenas issued to Raimondo, former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and former state Rep. Stephen Ucci. Briefs related to that dispute are due by Feb. 24, but a date for oral argument has not yet been set.
Alviti downplayed the possibility that the state could lose the suit.
“That is not something that we anticipate,” he said. “We are highly confident, and so are our attorneys, that we will prevail.” He noted that the program was also vetted by the Federal Highway Administration, and again defended it as a fair way to apportion the cost of bridge maintenance.
Lt. Gov. Dan McKee is set to succeed Raimondo once she is confirmed by the Senate, and he would have to figure out what to do if the state loses in court. Asked whether he would consider adding tolls to cars if that happens, McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi said, “The lieutenant governor has no intention to propose extending tolls to passenger vehicles.”
Meanwhile, the lawsuit is not the only financial challenge RIDOT is facing in 2021.
Lisbeth Pettengill, a spokesperson for the agency, said multiple revenue sources that RIDOT relies on have fallen sharply during the pandemic, with gas tax receipts off by up to 20% during some months and fewer people paying DMV fees. The agency’s transfer from the Rhode Island Capital Plan Fund has also been reduced, she said. As a result, RIDOT is revising its schedule of projects to complete.
RIPEC’s DiBiase also noted that “after years without a transportation bond,” Rhode Island voters are being asked in the March 2 special election to approve a $71.7 million bond that will provide borrowed money to cover the state’s required match for federal transportation funding, “demonstrating the lack of other state match funding, at least for the coming year.”
Pettengill said in an email, “The coming fiscal year will be challenging because we face budget constraints that will require us to be frugal and creative. We will have a clearer idea of our financial position after the bond vote in March and as the legislative session continues.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram