2014-03-07 / Front Page

City Seeks Broadway Funding

By Tom Shevlin

A debate in Washington over how best to fund a critical federal highway infrastructure program has begun to reverberate inside City Hall, leaving city officials in a holding pattern and casting a degree of uncertainty over the timing of one of Newport’s most anticipated public works projects.

At their meeting on Feb. 26, City Council members were prompted to pass a relatively straightforward resolution asking the state’s congressional delegation to urge their fellow lawmakers in Congress to act swiftly to develop a new funding mechanism to ensure the future solvency of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. The fund, which serves as the primary financing program for highway and transit projects across the country, is forecast to go broke as early as August or September.

“It’s a problem communities are facing across the state, and the entire country,” says Bill Riccio, the city’s director of public services.

Last month, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that the trust fund will be unable to meet its obligations, with current spending levels far exceeding revenue coming into the program.

The problem, according to policy experts, is structural – and is not entirely unexpected.

Drawing most of its revenue from taxes generated by the sale of gasoline and diesel fuel, the fund has been in decline for a number of years as advances in fuel economy technology have allowed motorists to consume less fuel. However, that, combined with mounting infrastructure costs, has left the trust fund struggling to maintain its historic funding levels.

In Newport, one area that could be immediately affected is the ongoing Broadway Streetscape Improvement Project. According to Riccio, the city had hoped to begin the final phase of the project as soon as National Grid completes a series of upgrades to the area’s network of gas lines. While the utility company is still finalizing its plans, Riccio had expected that the final streetscape work could begin as early as this spring, with work wrapping up sometime in the fall.

Now, however, Riccio said that provided the trust fund is restored, work likely won’t begin until after the summer season.

That, he says, could turn out to be a blessing in disguise – especially for business owners who last year struggled through a barrage of construction activity that made Broadway nearly impassible.

“I think something will get done,” Riccio says. “It’s just a matter of when.”

Indeed, attention has been turned in recent weeks to the state of the fund, with legislators on both sides of the political aisle offering ideas to reinvigorate the program.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama last week asked Congress for $300 billion to pay for infrastructure projects that otherwise would have come from the trust fund.

According to the White House, if the fund is not renewed, some 700,000 jobs could be at risk, costing untold millions to the U.S. economy.

Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis said that renewing the fund is vital to the entire nation.

“The clock is ticking,” he said during an appearance on WPRO’s Buddy Cianci Show. “It’s critical not just for Rhode Island, but it’s critical for infrastructure across the country.”

According to state transportation officials, Rhode Island received roughly $200 million to pay for needed infrastructure repairs in 2013 and the final phase of the Broadway Streetscape Improvement Project was being partially funded through the program.

Now, Riccio said he’s exploring other potential funding sources, including the federal government’s TIGER program, which though typically reserved for large-scale infrastructure projects, could potentially be applied to Broadway.

This is not the first time the fund has found itself coming up short. In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration predicted a similar shortfall, prompting Congress to shift billions of dollars from the general treasury to make up the difference. However, the appetite among Congressional leaders to continue that policy has dissipated.

President John F. Kennedy also faced a similar problem 53 years ago.

At the time, Kennedy told Congress “Our federal pay-as-you-go highway program is in peril” and urged an increase to the federal gasoline tax. Congress obliged.

But today, raising taxes on a resource that is likely to pay a diminishing role in future transportation options is seen as a non-starter in Washington.

City Council members passed their resolution urging that the matter be addressed and used Broadway to illustrate the potential impact that failure to act would have on local communities.

“It all goes back to the adage that all politics is local,” says Riccio.

Calling for the reconfiguration of Broadway from Equality Park to Washington Square, the Broadway Streetscape Improvement Project has been almost six years in the making.

Once complete, Newport’s historic main street will feature a variety of improvements, including enhanced pedestrian safety measures at crosswalks, a slightly narrower roadway meant to calm traffic, the installation of decorative period lighting, additional landscaping, and more parking.

It is, as one city planner described it, the most important and visible project the city has undertaken in years.

In the end, officials in City Hall are confident that the improvements to Broadway will be completed. However, until a deal is worked through, projects across the state are likely to be shrouded in uncertainty.

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