Governor Lincoln D. Chafee and Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) Director Michael P. Lewis held a press conference this morning at the Pawtucket River Bridge to discuss how the Governor's proposed budget would responsibly and adequately fund necessary infrastructure investments in Rhode Island.
"It is significant that we are discussing my budget's plan to set up a dedicated fund for transportation projects just steps from the Pawtucket River Bridge, which is structurally deficient and is being replaced at the cost of at least $85.5 million," Governor Chafee said. "With a dedicated funding source, rather than continuing to borrow and pay interest for these projects, we can perform preemptive upkeep and repairs and avoid costly replacements like this one."
Rhode Island will spend $43.7 million on debt service in 2011. If the borrowing continues at its current rate, that number will rise to over $70 million per year within the next 10 years. The accumulated debt on bonds now stands at $432 million, requiring RIDOT to spend $43.7 million in the current fiscal year on debt service payments. These high debt service payments limit the Department's ability to take on new projects and to effectively maintain the state's system of approximately 800 bridges and nearly 3,000 lane miles of roads.
To end the state's habit of borrowing (and therefore paying interest) to fund infrastructure projects, the Governor has proposed gradually transferring certain fees collected by the Division of Motor Vehicles to a dedicated fund for transportation projects. This would allow the state to avoid future increases in the gas tax and reduce its reliance on debt to pave roads and repair bridges. The Governor's budget plan would allow the state to eliminate future borrowing for transportation by 2016.
"With adequate funding, steps could have been taken to lengthen the service life of this bridge," Director Lewis said. "We have many other structures across the state in a similar situation. Unless we learn from the past, we are destined to repeat it."
Replacement of the Pawtucket River Bridge is a high priority for RIDOT. Through its contract with S&R Corporation/Pihl., Inc., the Department will build three new structures, replacing each bridge carrying northbound and southbound traffic on I-95, and building another bridge to help carry highway traffic during phased construction. This third bridge will carry on- and off-ramps to George and School Streets when the project is finished.
This construction method will allow the Department to replace the Pawtucket River Bridge as quickly as possible with no loss of travel lanes on I-95. The extent of the work, however, will affect travel on city streets in Pawtucket. Detours are already in place.
The project is scheduled for completion in summer 2013. Enough construction should be completed by spring 2012, however, that the Department can shift traffic to new structures and eliminate the bridge's 18-ton weight limit. RIDOT has an early incentive clause with its contractor, with a maximum bonus of $4.5 million, that could result in the weight limit being lifted even sooner.