PROVIDENCE — As the politicians gathered next to some dismal train tracks under a crumbling bridge Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed jokingly suggested a change to the program: Perhaps instead of speeches about the new infrastructure bill that just passed Congress, they should unload a big truck full of cash instead.
The speeches happened anyway, and no big truck full of cash came, but the metaphor was still apt for the infrastructure deal that passed the House on Friday: Rhode Island will get some $2.5 billion in formula funding, a boost for projects in the pipeline like roads and bridges, the airport, broadband, and other needs. That $2.5 billion figure includes money that would have come to Rhode Island anyway, and because it involves a vast network of federal programs, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how much of an increase it represents. It’s also not the only source of extra cash: Rhode Island will be eligible for other sources of money beyond that $2.5 billion as states compete for other pots of funding.
“We finally got it done,” Reed said at the news conference celebrating the bill.
Where’s that proverbial truck full of cash headed? What projects will it fund? They’re more difficult questions than they might first appear, in part because there’s a lot of money, much of it new, and also because the state still needs to figure out how to use it.
But it’s a good problem to have, supporters say. The state Department of Transportation said its slice of the funding would help accelerate its list of some 600 projects, meaning ones that were going to be done in a year or two will be done now, and ones that would have been done in five or six years will be done in one or two. Those projects include roads, bridges, highways, and even cycling and pedestrian projects. It includes, for example, the Route 95 bridge they were standing under off Cadillac Drive, which needs some help. But DOT Director Peter Alviti said he couldn’t point to a particular project that will now get done, when it couldn’t have before, because of the bill. Instead it will speed those in the pipeline, though it won’t cover the cost of all 600.
Over five years, according to a DOT fact-sheet, the state will get $310.7 million more under the new bill than it would have under the previous formula for general transportation funding, plus an extra $242 million in new funding specifically for bridge replacement, rehab and preservation. It will also need to find state funds to match those, to the tune of almost $144 million over five years.
There are no specific earmarks in the legislation for projects in Rhode Island, so there will be some amount of jockeying for support for particular projects and some amount of uncertainty over approvals and timing. The phones at the Department of Transportation are ringing with requests. Elected officials have pressed for money for projects relatively big and relatively small, everything from the Mount Hope Bridge to the Barrington bike path bridges.
According to a breakdown from Reed’s office, there’s $277 million for mass transit, $45 million for airports, and $23 million for new electric vehicle charging stations coming to the state. That doesn’t include the billions in improvements for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, or other sources of funding for wildfire prevention, cyberattack prevention, broadband internet expansion — $100 million — and water infrastructure improvements.
“It’s the largest investment in transportation in our history,” said John Flaherty, the deputy director of Grow Smart RI.
But how will it be used? Flaherty has had some ideas. He said it’s possible the federal funding could help make a new indoor transit center on Dorrance Street a reality. Whether it will actually do that remains to be seen, but it’s a priority of Flaherty, and many other people, to try to move the state toward things like cleaner transportation, active transportation, and electrification of bus fleets and personal vehicles.
Flaherty sits on the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee, which advises the State Planning Council, which falls under the Department of Administration. Flaherty and two other members introduced a resolution earlier this year urging the state to use the various forms of federal funds this year to invest in projects that would reduce climate-changing emissions. That includes already-developed plans to improve transit, bike mobility and electric vehicles.
The resolution didn’t go anywhere, perhaps in part because the federal transportation bill hadn’t passed yet. Now it has, and is headed to President Biden’s desk for his signature.
“We’re in a good place to leverage all that funding,” Flaherty said. “We’ve got the plans. Let’s actually implement them.”