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Providence Journal: Crucial to fix R.I. bridges

By Ed Rendell 


As a former two-term mayor of Philadelphia and two-term governor of Pennsylvania, I’m keenly aware of the challenges cities and states face in rebuilding their roads and bridges.

In 2008, during my second term as governor, two contractors from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation stopped to get a sausage sandwich; they parked their cars under a bridge along Route 95 in Philadelphia.

It’s lucky they wanted that sausage sandwich because they saw one of the piers had a gash about eight feet long and five inches wide. The contractors knew right then that the bridge was in deep trouble.

The section of Route 95 was immediately shut down and blocked off while construction crews buttressed the column with steel girders. It was closed for three days, creating havoc in Philadelphia.

But the city was lucky: if those contractors hadn’t stopped, there's a strong likelihood that bridge would have collapsed. You can’t help but think of the Route 35 bridge that collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring many more.

Across the country, America is suffering from dilapidated and crumbling infrastructure. But few states have issues as serious as Rhode Island. In a recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Rhode Island ranked 45th in road quality, and dead last — 50th out of 50 states — in bridge quality.

The problem is simple: we are not investing enough to maintain, rebuild, and modernize our infrastructure. The problem isn’t going to fix itself; in fact, the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be to address it. We need our elected officials to step up and offer solutions. We need leadership.

That’s why I’m so impressed with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks proposal. Here’s a new governor who identified the problem, analyzed it, and offered a bold solution to address it. Her proposal would invest approximately $1 billion in additional money over the next 10 years to modernize Rhode Island’s highway bridges. It would generate much of the money by assessing a user fee on large commercial trucks.

Her plan makes sense for several reasons. First, virtually every state on the Route 95 corridor from Maryland to Maine assesses user fees on large commercial trucks. (Large commercial trucks are paying $114 to cross the George Washington Bridge in New York.) Why should Rhode Island continue to be an outlier when its roads and bridges are among the worst?

Second, study after study shows that large commercial trucks are responsible for the vast majority of vehicle-created damage to roads and bridges, yet commercial trucks pay only a fraction of the cost to repair them. It’s only fair to make them pay a little more -- especially since they’re already paying these fees in so many other states.

Third, her plan will create jobs. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate is still among the worst in the country, and the state has suffered, especially from a shortage of construction jobs. The governor’s plan would not only improve roads and bridges, but create thousands of jobs and provide a strong boost to the state’s economy.

And finally, it’s good for business. One of the key ingredients companies look at when deciding where to locate is the quality of infrastructure. If Rhode Island wants to attract more companies to invest and create jobs, it has to improve the quality of its infrastructure.

It’s no surprise that some in the trucking industry are complaining. Truckers claim to want to rebuild our roads, but their solution is to hike the gas tax or to impose tolls on everyone. Governor Raimondo’s plan makes sense: trucks cause a majority of the damage, it’s only fair if they pay a little more of the cost of repair.

The longer the state waits, the more expensive it will become, because materials become more expensive and more bridges fall into disrepair.

America needs leadership to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. Your governor is providing that leadership right here in Rhode Island. You have a chance to make real progress, address a serious problem and put thousands of people to work. I hope you act without delay.

Ed Rendell is co-chairman of Building America’s Future along with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ray Lahood, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.