New questions about $595M savings from Raimondo truck-toll plan

Apples-to-apples comparisons elusive in case for borrowing over paying-as-you-go

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Raimondo administration claims its debt-financed RhodeWorks plan would save taxpayers $595 million, but that number requires tackling fewer bridge projects than a pay-as-you-go alternative, a WPRI.com analysis shows.

R.I. Department of Transportation officials acknowledged that point on Thursday, more than a week after they were first questioned about it. But they insisted that borrowing money would still leave Rhode Island’s bridges in significantly better shape two decades from now than if revenue from the governor’s proposed truck toll is used as it comes in.

The reasons are complicated, but the best place to start is with the basic math underlying the $595 million in savings.

RIDOT says the current RhodeWorks plan – to borrow $600 million for a “surge” in bridge projects, and use tolling revenue to pay the bond back – would save a net $595 million after interest by lowering construction costs over time. The reason: bridges become more expensive to repair as they deteriorate further, so the early “surge” in projects staves off higher costs down the road.

However, that’s not a complete picture.

There are 15 groups of bridge projects that RIDOT left out of its cost estimate for the “surge” proposal but included in its alternative pay-as-you-go scenario. Their combined cost under pay-as-you-go is $625 million – which would be more than enough to tip the scales and make borrowing more expensive than pay-as-you-go, not cheaper.

Asked about the discrepancy between the two scenarios, RIDOT officials said they had no choice but to put more projects into the pay-as-you-go proposal, because their marching orders were to create two plans that would end with 90% of Rhode Island’s bridges structurally sufficient. The 90% target would be reached by 2025 with the “surge,” but not until 2034 under pay-as-you-go since fewer projects can be done each year, they said.

“The basic problem in all this is deterioration,” Peter Garino, RIDOT’s deputy director, told WPRI.com. “The deterioration occurs, and the longer it takes to do something – the longer it takes to fix the bridges – the more it’s going to cost, primarily because Mother Nature is deteriorating the bridge and the vehicles riding over them are deteriorating bridges as they go.”

Borrowing plan totals $108 million more

In response to a request submitted by WPRI.com early last week, RIDOT was unable to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of how much it would cost to undertake the exact same set of bridge projects under both the RhodeWorks bond plan and the pay-as-you-go alternative.

“It’s not going to be the exact same collection of bridges that you fix in one scenario versus the another, because more bridges are failing in the RhodeWorks pay-as-you-go scenario than in the RhodeWorks bonded because you’re putting in that investment up front [using the bond money],” Garino said.

“A lot of that has to do with where we are in history,” he added. “A lot of bridges built in the ’50s and ’60s – they’re now at that point in the deterioration curve where if we don’t catch them now and wait a decade, they’re going to get worse.”

On Thursday, however, the agency did provide a different set of new spreadsheets for comparison purposes, which show the total amount Rhode Island would spend on bridge projects through 2034 under both scenarios. It marks the first time the administration has publicly projected how much will have to be spent on bridge repairs after 2025 if RhodeWorks is adopted.

The bottom line: RIDOT now says taxpayers will spend $108 million more on bridge repairs through 2034 if the bond is floated than they would if toll revenue is used on a pay-as-you-go basis. Put another way, RhodeWorks costs $595 million less than pay-as-you-go through 2025, but it costs $108 million more than pay-as-you-go if you extend the window out to 2034.

At the same time, taxpayers would get a bigger benefit by 2034 if they spend the additional money, according to RIDOT. Officials estimate 97% of Rhode Island’s bridges would be structurally sufficient in 2034 if bond money is authorized, but only 90% would be in that condition that year if the pay-as-you-go program is adopted.

David Fish, RIDOT’s acting chief engineer and the point man on the bridge plan, said it would take more time and the repair of roughly 92 average-sized bridges for RIDOT to get to 97% under the pay-as-you-go program. Those additional projects would cost another $400 million without accounting for inflation, he estimated.

“There are 92 bridges done in RhodeWorks bonded that don’t become structurally deficient, but they would remain that way in pay-as-you-go” as of 2034, added RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin. If the additional $400 million or more to fix those remaining bridges is added to the pay-as-you-go estimate it would be more expensive than the bond proposal, he added.

Fish also expressed concern about the fact that the share of structurally sufficient bridges in Rhode Island would fall to a low of 57% in 2022 under the pay-as-you-go program, whereas the share would never fall below 74% if the bond is floated. The current figure is 78%.

“Right now it’s difficult,” Fish said. Falling to 57% could mean “additional weight restrictions, potential bridge closures, lengthy detours through municipal streets – a lot of what Pawtucket went through when we weight-restricted the Pawtucket River Bridge,” he said.

RI bridges structural sufficiency to 2034

Lawmakers set to take up toll plan

Of course, the question of whether to float a bond or embrace pay-as-you-go will prove to be academic if state lawmakers refuse to go along with Raimondo’s proposal to generate hundreds of millions of dollars with a new toll on large commercial trucks.

While there’s little argument over whether Rhode Island needs to spend more on its transportation system, there’s plenty of debate about whether tolling is the right way to fund it.

The original RhodeWorks proposal was rolled out with great fanfare last May and quickly passed the Senate. But House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello blocked passage, saying he needed more details about the economic impact of tolling, even after the administration made significant revisions to the proposal.

In recent weeks, however, Mattiello has signaled a growing openness to Raimondo’s plan. His spokesman confirmed Thursday that House leaders still intend to act on transportation funding early next year.

At the same time, critics continue to mobilize to fight the plan.

The Rhode Island Trucking Association, whose members would be forced to pay tolls if the proposal passes, recently filed a public-records request demanding more information about the plan, including the exact locations where toll gantries would be placed.

On Wednesday, a coalition of limited-government groups including RI Taxpayers and Ocean State Taxpayers in Action announced the formation of a new organization called StopTollsRI.com that will marshal opposition to RhodeWorks.

The groups highlighted two alternatives that have been put forward: House Republicans’ proposal to redirect money spent elsewhere in the state budget to bridges, and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s proposed public-private partnership.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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