NEXT EXIT? Construction on the Providence Viaduct at the Atwells Avenue exit on Interstate 95 South. The crisis over the solvency of the federal highway trust fund could jeopardize similar projects in Rhode Island.
On one side of the state line, Massachusetts highway projects are plowing ahead, despite the crisis in Washington, D.C., over the solvency of the federal highway trust fund.
A few miles west on the Rhode Island side of the line, “shovel-ready” construction projects such as repairs to the East Shore Expressway and replacement of the Great Island Bridge in Narragansett are on hold because of the risk that federal transportation money won’t be there to pay for it.
In all, Rhode Island has delayed 20 highway projects worth $67 million as a result of the congressional impasse over how to pay for highway spending long term.
More than most other states, Rhode Island relies on federal dollars from the highway trust fund to pay for its transportation projects: 80 percent of Rhode Island highway spending comes from the federal government.
Massachusetts, by contrast, receives roughly half of its highway spending from the trust fund, according to Mass. Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Verseckes, and as a result, has more flexibility to cover an emergency drop in federal assistance.
To the relief of state transportation departments across the country, the U.S. Senate last week joined the House in passing short-term legislation to prevent the trust fund from running out of money this month.
However, while the emergency fix will allow projects like the East Shore Expressway and Great Island Bridge replacement to begin, it almost certainly will place Rhode Island and other states back in the same uncertain position next May if not sooner.
The House version, expected to win out, replenishes the trust fund through May, while the Senate version only covers until mid-December.
In the absence of a long-term solution, the next crisis will then threaten another round of local projects, R.I. Department of Transportation officials warn, including, potentially, the second phase of the $147 million Providence Viaduct replacement underway now.