(Appeared Monday Feb 1 in the Providence Journal.)
On March 2, Rhode Island will hold a referendum on some bond issues. This special election was made necessary by the General Assembly's inability to pass a budget in time for last November’s election. Question 4 will ask for approval of $71.7 million as a state match for $287 million in federal highway funds. Sounds like a good idea? Not so much.
DOT says: "The dollars will be used as the match for ongoing construction projects. Projects included, but not limited to, would be Route 37, Pell Bridge Ramps Phase 2, Providence Northbound Viaduct, Washington Bridge, Henderson Bridge, Huntington Viaduct Bridges, Route 146 Safety Improvement Project, Cranston Canyon Corridor Project and Pawtucket/Central Falls Train Station."
In other words, the bond is for nothing special, just a way to accelerate projects already in the pipeline.
So is this bond a good idea? We have a depressed economy and low interest rates, so it makes sense to borrow for ambitious projects. And yet, this is an awful list, for three reasons.
Reason One: Don't borrow for maintenance. It is a terrible plan to use debt for ongoing expenses like maintenance. Many of these projects are just maintenance -- fixing bridges, repaving roads -- disguised by just enough safety improvements or capacity increases to call them new construction.
For the most part, the state cannot use Federal highway funds for maintenance, but this kind of relabeling gets around that. Since at least the 1970s, this has been standard operating practice at DOT, with two legacies. One is that lots of people have smaller front yards than they used to, and the other is a huge pile of unnecessary debt incurred by the state.
In truth, DOT has been underfunded for years, accumulating a massive debt freely building roads it does not have the budget to maintain. This must stop.
Reason Two: We cannot solve capacity issues by widening roads. We have known for decades that widening roads only attracts more traffic. Building new lanes on I-95 only invites more people to use them, and use them they will. You battle congestion by providing transportation alternatives -- buses, bicycles, trains, sidewalks -- not by doubling down on wider roads, which only buys a few years' relief.
It's true that among the projects DOT lists is a train station -- one! -- but it's the last project they named and represents around 3% of the total. DOT refuses to take transportation alternatives seriously. Last year, they tried to reallocate $28 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to resurfacing streets, and a proposal to rebuild the 6/10 connector as a boulevard with pedestrian and public transit features was dismissed out of hand. RIDOT priorities are all about building highways for cars. Period. This must change, but it shows no sign of changing, which brings us to the third point.
Reason Three: Our world is melting, and it is breathtakingly irresponsible for the state to treat public transit and other alternatives as a mere afterthought. Carbon emissions from transportation are the single largest component of greenhouse gases. 2020 was among the hottest years ever in recorded human history; is building wider highways really the highest priority RIDOT can imagine?
In Massachusetts, Governor Baker just signed a $16.5 billion transportation bond proposal. Over $6 billion of it is for rail and public transit projects, well over $600 million for pedestrians, bicycles, and other alternatives, along with another $2 billion in it for local projects, of which at least a billion is to fund transit or alternative transportation improvements. This is after the bill was revised to include more highway projects.
Until we see transportation priorities that reflect the climate threat and the real needs of an Ocean State, vote NO on RIDOT borrowing, question 4, March 2.