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Truck Tolls: Plaintiffs Appeal Ruling to Dismiss; Do Not Accede to Moving the Fight to State Court

On March 19, the federal district court in Providence dismissed the American Trucking Associations’ lawsuit against Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls, heeding the State of Rhode Island’s legal argument that their truck-only tolls are not a federal but a state matter and within the state’s purview to assess because they are actually taxes. (Wait, what?? Since when? From the beginning and all through the toll battle, Governor Gina Raimondo and state leaders repeatedly told us that tolls are a “fee”, a “user fee“, an apple – anything but a tax.)

At that point, the ATA had two choices: file the suit in state court or move to keep the suit at the federal level by appealing the decision. They just issued a statement indicating that they have chosen the latter course, stating, in part

Yesterday, the American Trucking Associations, along with three motor carriers representing the industry, appealed last week’s decision by the federal district court in Rhode Island to dismiss their challenge to Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme, on procedural grounds.

In its challenge, ATA contends that Rhode Island’s truck-only toll scheme is unconstitutional because it discriminates against interstate trucking companies and impedes the flow of interstate commerce. In its March 19, 2019 decision dismissing the case, the district court did not address the merits of that constitutional claim. Instead, it held only that ATA’s challenge could not proceed in federal court.

ATA President and CEO Chris Spear went on to underscore, “…we look forward to establishing the unconstitutionality of Rhode Island’s discriminatory tolls on the merits.”

[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current and Anchor Rising for over ten years, was volunteer spokesperson for the citizens advocacy anti-toll group StopTollsRI.com for three+ years and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of 2017.]

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Chris Maxwell: National Academic Board Finds No Data to Support Raimondo & RIDOT’s Claims of Truck Damage to Highways & Bridges

The National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board (TRB) recently met to assess whether changes to truck size and weight (TS & W) should be implemented. The nation’s scholars, engineers and infrastructure “wonks” came away from the conference with a consensual determination that there was not enough data to support changes and that further studies were needed before any revisions were made to either decrease or increase the allowable dimensions and weight on America’s highways and bridges. In fact, the group spent significant time developing a plan for future research on the TS & Weight issue because there are information gaps and inconsistencies in studies.

So why are DOT leaders around the country yelling “fire in the theater” as they pin the trucking industry with the ills of our infrastructure?

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Parks and Beaches: Another Investment We’re Already Making

Along with her budget’s request to increase fees for beaches and Rhode Island parks, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo is rolling out the usual message about “investing” in our state:

“Our beaches and parks are such a special part of who we are as Rhode Islanders, and we need to preserve them for future generations,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “The study DEM commissioned recently makes clear that we’re not doing enough now. It’s critical that we commit to long-term investments in our parks and beaches. Let’s make sure our kids have the same opportunities that we did.”

The study noted that Rhode Island exhibits high park use and low investment compared with the rest of the nation – ranking 1st in visits per park acre but 47th in state spending per visit. The study calls on the State to make a strategic, sustained, long-term investment to increase the self-sufficiency and economic potential of the park system, protect infrastructure, enhance programs, and bolster operations and staffing.

The missing statistic in that summary is anything gauging Rhode Island’s tax burden.  Especially in the messaging of our current governor, everything is an “investment.”  The problem is that we’re already making those investments.  We’re just not getting much for them, whether in terms of infrastructure, economic development, or education.

Another budgetary favorite of Raimondo’s emphasizes the point:  budget scoops.  When the governor’s office makes a regular practice of “scooping up” money from restricted funds, which are often driven by fees of one sort of another, it sends the message that it’s all really about finding new sources of revenue.

In other words, she’s actually looking for investments in more of the same old insider deals that have drained money away from things Rhode Islanders actually value.

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Partisan Quip a Ding to Reed’s Image

Somehow, I’m always surprised when Rhode Island’s U.S. Senator Jack Reed isn’t better than this:

“President Trump’s myopic fixation on a border wall has resulted in the neglect of our nation’s highways, bridges, airports, public housing, and other key infrastructure investments. But today, Congress is committing long overdue funding to invest in public infrastructure and move America forward,” said Reed, the ranking Democrat on a key transportation and housing appropriations committee.

Oh, come on.  Our infrastructure has been languishing for decades.  Yes, probably just the contrast with the rest of the Ocean State’s federal delegation, but Reed’s brand of honesty takes a little ding every time he makes a silly partisan statement like this.

These days, any area of political activity that ought to have the capacity to bring us together is simply seen as an opportunity to drive a different wedge.

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Yet More Bad Toll Numbers from Raimondo & RIDOT

Surprise surprise surprise! WPRI’s Ted Nesi reports that

Gov. Gina Raimondo has sharply lowered her forecast of how much money truck tolls will generate this year because they are getting and running more slowly than initially expected.

The budget proposal Raimondo released earlier this month projects that tolls will generate $7 million in the current 2018-19 budget year, which is $34 million less than was expected when the budget passed last June.

If you’ve watched the toll discussion and rollout even casually, you will know that this development is actually not at all a surprise.

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Balance of Toll Gantries Going Up at Top Speed; Serious Implications of Raimondo Breaking Her Word

As we jump into the latest unsavory development in the state’s shady, deliberately ignorant roll-out of truck tolls, this preamble is the most important take-away: tolls on any vehicles in Rhode Island are completely unnecessary. The spending to repair Rhode Island’s bridges can be found within the annual budget – and without throwing 30% of the revenue away on gantry construction and toll fees.

RIDOT has announced today that they received federal approval for the balance of the gantries and that the contractor has been issued notice to proceed with construction, with the first new gantry expected to go live in May of 2019.

This flies in the face of Governor Gina Raimondo’s repeated statements that any more gantries would wait until the lawsuit and the legality of truck-only tolls is decided. Just one instance was on Dan Yorke State of Mind earlier this year (starting at Minute 06:00):

Yorke: You said, “If we lose the litigation, we don’t put the tolls up”.

Governor: “Correct”.

Governor: “We’re going to start with one in February. We assume there will be litigation which we will then have to defend and then we’ll see.”

Governor: “We gotta do one, we gotta see how it goes and then we’ll move to the next one.”

To not proceed with the construction of the balance of the gantries until their legality had been threshed out was a significant undertaking and also the prudent course on behalf of taxpayers and residents.

The implications for Rhode Island residents of her breaking her word and doing a highly irresponsible one eighty are significant. We have received repeated assurances that these gantries will be used only to toll trucks. But what happens if the court rules truck-only tolls illegal? The most innocuous – and actually not that innocuous – implication of her action in erecting gantries for a use that may be legally vacated is that she has very irresponsibly opened state taxpayers to a significant, unnecessary expense; i.e., putting us all on the hook for the cost of these gantries.

A far more ominous implication is that, by proceeding with the construction of all gantries before a court ruling, she is actively positioning the state for all-vehicle tolling. In a recent interview with WTNH, Governor Ned Lamont said that Governor Raimondo told him she is “highly confident” that the lawsuit will be found in the state’s favor – and “later this spring”, no less. (This attitude strikes me not only as baseless, extreme legal optimism but also quite disrespectful of the judge presiding over the case.).

The governor’s highly quizzical legal prognosticating to one side, it is impossible to predict the lawsuit’s outcome. A ruling against truck-only tolling doesn’t mean that tolls themselves have to go away, only their discriminatory assessment. By going back on her word on gantry construction, Governor Raimondo may be telescoping the time it takes to spread the – remember, completely unnecessary – toll cancer to all vehicles.

[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current for over ten years, has been a volunteer for StopTollsRI.com, a grassroots citizens group opposed to all tolls, for four years, and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of last year.]

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Government’s Autonomous Vehicles: The Driver Just Doesn’t Drive

Yeah, this program kind of misses the point of autonomous vehicles:

The [May Mobility] shuttles will run between downtown Providence and Olneyville via the Woonasquatucket (woo-NAH’-squaw-tuck-ett) River corridor. There’s currently no public transit along the full route. …

Each vehicle holds six people, including an attendant who’ll have the ability to fully control the shuttle at any time to ensure safety.

The state’s news release provides more information, although not much more detail. Oddly, that includes the expression of concerns from the bus drivers’ union, which isn’t the sort of content one generally gets from a promotional government statement.

Each of these shuttles will be too small even to carry two three-person families, because one-sixth of its capacity will be taken up (essentially) by a driver who isn’t driving. This might be why we don’t tend to allot our cutting-edge work to government.

Wasn’t there anything else on which the state could spend half a million dollars it shook down from Volkswagen?

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A Voice of “No” on Debt

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has released a statement against all three ballot questions for more debt:

Broadly, Rhode Island is relying too heavily on debt to cover its bills. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University puts Rhode Island’s long-term liabilities at 90% of the state’s assets, which is higher than the average state. Truth in Accounting’s State Data Lab gives Rhode Island a D for finances, with $8,288,881,000 in bonds and other liabilities, plus another $4,316,527,000 in pension and other retirement liabilities. A recent Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) report finds Rhode Island already among the worst states when it comes to debt per capita and debt per income.

More debt is not the answer to the Ocean State’s problems; it is a major problem in itself. Adding $589,462,045 in principal and interest by passing the three ballot questions will make it worse.

The State of Rhode Island and its municipalities must be more prudent with the tax dollars they already collect — for example, prioritizing school-building maintenance over more frivolous projects.

Every election brings this same issue.  It’s just too easy for people to tally up the promised benefits and not consider the costs.  Meanwhile, the special interests — from the construction unions to the environmentalist groups — have huge incentive to advocate for the debt. (Contrast that, by the way, with the dangers of advocating for a bigger piece of existing spending, which might go up against other special interests who want to keep what they’ve got.)

This is another area where the public needs more education on the issues and all too few people have any incentive to provide it.

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The Unspoken Solution for 195 Bridge Traffic

This thread jumped out at me from a Providence Journal editorial about the disaster-level traffic resulting from ordinary, planned bridge construction on Route 195 West:

Fortunately, Mr. Alviti, though not answerable to the voters, quickly caught wind of the uproar. He announced last week that he, his planners and traffic engineers will go “back to the drawing board” to see if anything can be done. They were working over the weekend on a new plan, looking at opening an additional lane and otherwise increasing capacity for vehicles. …

In the real world, there is no easy way out, of course. As one of the 235 deficient bridges in the state, Washington Bridge does need to be repaired. In the 20 years since its northern span was reconstructed, it has been rotting away, with rusty reinforcement rods sticking out of the concrete on its underside. …

To speed things up, the RIDOT already plans to work around the clock, toiling through the night, which adds to a project’s cost but makes the work go faster.

For some reason, the most important point for us to discuss as a community in response to these government failings never seems to come up.  If we were to lighten up on the ridiculous labor rules that make the cost of roadwork so high, project managers would gain all kinds of flexibility.  That’s a side effect whenever the price of something goes down.

Drop the cost of construction 25–40% (or more), and the state and municipalities will find it easier to keep roads and bridges well kept so they don’t get to the point of needing major repairs as quickly.  Working around the clock or only when traffic is light would more-often be an option.  If the cost were lower, we might have the slack in maintenance budgets to (in some instances) build entire alternate routes while the main route is entirely shut down.

When insider deals and corruption eat up budgets to the maximum that people will tolerate for the minimum tolerable output, there is no room for spending on strategies that make Rhode Islanders’ lives better in the midst of construction.

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Raimondo’s Debt and the Strong Economy

In early July, we reported that the first RhodeWorks tolls were performing as projected, which the state Department of Transportation (RIDOT) promoted as a positive sign.  However, this may be another area in which Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo is indebted to Republican President Donald Trump:

The transportation sector is a reflection of the goods-based economy in the US. Demand has been blistering across all modes of transportation. Freight shipment volume (not pricing… we’ll get to pricing in a moment) by truck, rail, air, and barge, according to the Cass Freight Index jumped 10.6% in July compared to a year earlier. This pushed the index, which is not seasonally adjusted, to its highest level for July since 2007.

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

Things are just easier when the economy is strong… even bad government.

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Fairness on Roads and Bridges

How about we end the day with some conspicuous fairness?

So… that 24/7 Wall Street index showing Rhode Island with the worst roads and bridges in the country.  The bottom line is that this result can’t really be pinned on our current governor, Democrat Gina Raimondo.  Yes, one could point out that the data appears to be from 2015 and 2016, during which time she was in office, but that was early in her term, and she was working on RhodeWorks.  Yes, one could suggest that her program’s emphasis on increasing revenue means that RhodeWorks goes in the wrong direction and that the introduction of tolls makes it a net negative, or even a potential disaster, but that’s outside the scope of this index.

More importantly, that very view of RhodeWorks illustrates the long-term predicament into which our state has allowed itself to sink, beginning well before Gina Raimondo was a public figure.  The money we pay into government for things like maintaining infrastructure doesn’t actually go to those things, and nobody currently in office (who is able to do much) challenges the insider game that draws the funds away.

Earlier today, Gary Sasse tweeted the observation that it’s “hard to improve road conditions regardless of money if road builder, RIDOT, union axis is not addressed.”  One can only reply (as I did) that this axis is the one thing in Rhode Island that can never be challenged, because it is the essence of the state.

It shouldn’t be the essence, though, and it should be challenged.  That’s where criticism of Raimondo would be fair, especially to the extent that people supported her based on the promise that pension reform was only the beginning of her reform of the insider system (as insufficient as it was).  Roads and bridges are a long-running problem, in our state, but placing ambition over real reform is Raimondo’s own betrayal.

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Truck Tolls: *Sigh* No, Peter and Gene, We Cannot Conclude that Truck Drivers Support Them

Every Thursday morning, as you probably know, WPRO’s Gene Valicenti hosts RIDOT Director Peter Alviti on the WPRO Morning News for a half hour plus segment. (Yeah, I know, I find it annoying, too.) Alviti takes questions from callers and spends a significant amount of air time promoting Governor Gina Raimondo’s wasteful, unnecessary, highly damaging RhodeWorks toll scheme.

On July 19, Alviti ratcheted it up a notch by involving his host.

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Next/Last Round of Toll Gantries: Raimondo Administration Solicits Public Comment on an UNFINISHED Environmental Assessment

A couple of weeks ago, Governor Gina Raimondo’s Department of Transportation announced the locations of the balance of ten toll gantries and released an Environmental Assessment [PDF] of them. They also announced that hearings to take questions and comments on the E.A. would occur in three locations on July 27 – tonight, as a matter of fact.

Yes, that’s right, RIDOT is holding public hearings on a very significant project on a summer Friday evening. Quite similar in spirit, as a matter of fact, to the scheduling and location of the hearing for the first Environmental Assessment – in that case, two days before Thanksgiving hard by a cow pasture in South County so remote, the cows themselves need GPS to get there.

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Super Governor Promotes Basic Services (with Big Bucks)

What’s one advantage of having an unprecedented war chest to fund the re-election campaign of an unpopular governor?  Well, as Spencer Rickert points out from Smithfield, the candidate can buy town-specific videos naming specific road repair projects that were “fixed by” the candidate:

Gina Raimondo fixed Capron Road Bridge in Smithfield to make Rhode Islanders safer and put our construction crews back to work. Under Gina’s leadership, we have already fixed more than 75 bridges and roads, in every community in Rhode Island, as part of a 10-year, $4.7 billion investment in the state’s infrastructure.

No, the video does not provide any evidence that Rhode Island’s Democrat governor, Gina Raimondo, was at any point out in the field repairing Capron Bridge Road, but the online video does bookend her initial use of the RhodeWork signs to promote her own name.  Just so, the video claims:

In Smithfield Gina Raimondo is investing $8 million in roads and bridges

If that means the Raimondo family has taking $8 million of its own money and generously donated it to the cause, this might really be breaking news.  As Alan Gianfrancesco comments to Rickert’s post:

She did not fix anything. We did. With our high sales tax, gas tax, corporate tax, nookie tax, toothpick tax and animal waste picking up tax.

Tell the truth.

Over the months that John DePetro and I have been discussing the election, I’ve wondered how effective standard political materials could be (even when inflated with millions in campaign funds) after four years of scandalous failure on the part of state government.  Will people forget UHIP, “Cooler & Warmer,” and all the rest because the governor is claiming credit for fixing roads, or will they bristle at the notion that spending more of our money (including with tolls) to do what should be the normal operation of government is some sort of act of altruism on her part?

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How’re the Tolls Doing So Far?

As Larry Gillheeney and Monique Chartier have both already noted, the American Trucking Association has filed a lawsuit against Rhode Island for uniquely targeting its members (and other interstate truck drivers) with tolls.  With this topic in mind the Ocean State Current contacted the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to check in on how the tolls are performing, thus far.

According to a spokesperson, the available numbers are still rough, in part because they are awaiting verification from the truckers’ home states.  They are also only available for the three weeks from June 11 through June 30.

During that period, RIDOT reports 133,000 toll transactions.  The spokesperson said the original projection was around 7,300 per day on weekdays and “about half that” on weekends, which would suggest that the actual numbers are beating the projections by about 5,000 tolls during that period.

Of course, two considerations come into play, at this point.  The first is that these were the very first three weeks of tolling, so any truckers who might decide to reroute in the future may not have adjusted their behavior, yet.  The second is that the tolls’ hitting their projected targets isn’t but so significant, given that the fully implemented program will have seven times as many tolls, creating more incentive to divert away from them, and that the judiciary might rule RhodeWorks unconstitutional, as currently structured.

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​National Trucking Unloads on Rhode Island’s Truck-Only Tolls

This afternoon, the American Trucking Associations filed suit against Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme, stating that it violates the Commerce Clause, citing its discriminatory nature and challenging its constitutionality. (View the lawsuit here.) Tune in now to 630 WPRO now, by the way, to hear the famous Mike Collins talking to John Loughlin (filling in for Dan Yorke) about the lawsuit.

The national truckers are not messing around: they are represented by ​Mayer ​Brown, the fifteenth largest law firm in the United States. Heavy artillery has been cut loose on a highly destructive, unnecessary new revenue program. On a certain, visceral level, that’s a beautiful thing and one wishes that this would happen with far more bad government programs.

Unfortunately, a highly likely outcome of the case will be an order to the State of Rhode Island to either desist tolling trucks or make it non-discriminatory by spreading the cancer to all vehicles including cars. Yet not one but two studies confirmed that tolls of any kind are not needed to repair Rhode Island’s bridges.

There have been many unanswered questions swirling around Gina Raimondo’s highly dubious, highly destructive toll plan.

Why was Governor Raimondo only capable of coming up with a cutting-edge, outside-of-the-box program that is destructive and burdensome rather than positive and propitious?

How did RIDOT get the truck counts and diversion rate, a critical basis for restricting tolls to only certain classes of vehicles, so wrong?

How did RhodeWorks tolls explode from $400M (per Governor Gina Raimondo in August of 2016 at Minute 15:00) to a completely open-ended, multi-billion dollar revenue stream?

Did Gina Raimondo, Nicholas Mattiello and Theresa Paiva-Weed truly believe that tolling trucks only, something that no other state does – a “unique approach” as RIDOT itself admits – was going to pass a legal challenge?

But the biggest question: if the lawsuit goes sideways and RhodeWorks tolls are ruled unconstitutional, will Nicholas Mattiello, Gina Raimondo and all Rhode Island legislators stand by their promise that tolls will never go on cars and scrap the RhodeWorks tolls?

[Monique has been volunteer spokesperson for StopTollsRI.com since tolls were first proposed three+ years ago and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of last year.]

After years of citizen outrage against truck-tolls in the Ocean State, the American Trucking Associations and three motor carriers representing the industry are brining a federal lawsuit against the State of Rhode Island on constitutional grounds likely to cost taxpayers millions.

Tolls Force ATA Lawsuit That Could Cost Rhode Island Taxpayers Millions In Legal Fees

After years of citizen outrage against truck-tolls in the Ocean State, the American Trucking Associations and three motor carriers representing the industry are bringing a federal lawsuit against the State of Rhode Island on constitutional grounds likely to cost taxpayers millions.

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Hoping for a Janus Effect on the Cost of RI Government

Jason Richwine notes, on National Review’s Corner, that the Janus decision looks likely to help bring public-sector compensation back toward private-sector reality:

… there is indeed a correlation between compulsory union dues and public-sector compensation. Based on data from the report that Andrew and I wrote in 2014, state workers in compulsory states were paid 17.0 percent more on average than comparable private workers, while state workers in non-compulsory states were paid just 5.6 percent more.

Take a look at Rhode Island’s position on his related chart:

 

How much more economic activity would we be experiencing if it weren’t for this premium taxed out of our economy, and how much more work could we get done on government services and maintenance if it weren’t so expensive?

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Michigan Helps Us Imagine the Possibilities on Prevailing Wage

Warner Todd Huston and Jeff Dunetz report on a cost-saving measure in Michigan that seems nearly unthinkable in Rhode Island:

Its common knowledge that parts of Michigan are falling apart. One reason for the disintegration of infrastructure within Michigan is a jobs-killing union rule that drives up the cost of government projects. This puts many necessary repairs and upgrades outside the reach of State’s budget. Finally, this budget-killing rule has been thrown in the trash by the state legislature.

Wednesday, June 6th the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate passed a measure to put an end to the budget-killing union rule called the “prevailing wage.” This rule required that all construction projects initiated by the state government to pay workers the same wage union members make, even if the workers hired for said projects are not members of a union.

Rhode Island’s infrastructure maintenance budget would go so much farther (and require much less debt) if the government would allow itself to pay market rate for the work.  Unfortunately, when it comes to our state government, we’re not a pragmatic state, but one concerned mainly with keeping insider arrangements alive.

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Sinkholes of One Kind and Another

Readers in the Rhode Island area, particularly to the east of Providence, may have caught wind of the heavy traffic along I-195, yesterday.  Apparently, crews were repairing some sort of “depression” in the road, perhaps from a prior patch.  These things happen, of course, but the longer a fix takes, the more traffic it causes, and the more expensive it is to do road work and maintenance, the less state and local governments will be able to do.

With regard to that second point, this still from WPRI’s coverage arguably tells the deeper story:

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To be fair, the reporter does say that the video was being taken as the crew was doing “finishing touches,” so at earlier periods the ratio of people working to standing around might not have been two to eight, as appears to be the case in this short clip.  That said, seeing high proportions of watchers to workers is hardly an unusual experience in Rhode Island.

One suspects a large part of the calculation is the strict assignment of jobs.  In traffic, recently, I watched a crew setting curbs along an exit ramp.  Two guys were hanging out in the truck with all of the traffic cones, another appeared to be supervising, two guys were in the hole setting curbs, another was standing on a truck to offload the curb pieces a few feet away, and another was driving the machine back and forth to move the curbs.  (Plus the cop directing traffic, of course.)

That crew could easily have been cut nearly in half without a loss in efficiency or safety simply by putting the cone placers to work setting curbs and giving the supervisor a more-active task.  I never did road work when I was in construction, but similar tasks would probably have called for only three people: One helping to set the curbs, one operating the machine, and one going back and forth to hook the machine to each new curb piece.

Multiply that excessive labor cost times every task associated with every yard of roadway, and the potential savings that could be put toward accelerated repairs and maintenance or left in the private economy would be massive.  Eliminating any presumed need for truck tolls would just be the starting point.

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Self-Driving Government Brainstorming Sessions

This Associated Press article doesn’t have much by way of detail, but it’s enough to be a head scratcher:

The state Department of Transportation is looking to get out in front of the self-driving vehicle movement with a plan to provide automated service for an underserved section of Providence.

The department on Monday announced that it is accepting proposals from companies who can test and eventually deliver such a service to fill a transportation gap between downtown Providence and Olneyville via the Woonasquatucket River corridor.

Rhode Islanders should be a little nervous when our state government starts talking about getting out ahead of the private sector with technological innovations.  A subsequent update to the article seems to go in an entirely different direction:

In an interview Monday, DOT director Peter Alviti Jr. said his agency doesn’t want to limit what private innovative concepts companies might propose, by mandating particular types of vehicles, the projects costs or even the route, which he said is not limited to just the Woonasquatucket River corridor.

Alviti said the DOT expects autonomous vehicles will begin appearing on Rhode Island roads with traditional cars within five years and the pilot is intended to create “tangible interactions” with the technology so the government can better understand how to plan for it. …

Although the pilot program could theoretically take the form of a bus, Alviti said the intent is not to create an autonomous mass transit system.

So, it appears the idea is to contract with some company to brainstorm just about any way self-driving vehicles might affect or be incorporated into public transit.  That’s a bit more open ended of an objective than we ought to accept, and a cynic might wonder who is going to turn out to be the owner of the company that gets this open-ended brainstorming project.

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The Incentives of School Bonds

Regular readers know I put a lot of emphasis on incentives as a way to understand events and a key consideration when crafting policies.  The $250 million school bond proposed for the November ballot is a good example.

On the front end, the incentive is very strong for school districts and municipalities to let facilities deteriorate.  First, the law is structured to give advantages to labor unions organized at the state and even federal level, creating incentive for them to manipulate the political structure.  Then, elected officials have incentive to tilt budgets toward organized labor, drawing money to compensation.  Next, having learned from that experience over time, taxpayers have incentive to squeeze money out of budgets so that even higher taxes aren’t paying again for things like maintenance that they thought were already included and that might be diverted again if available.

On top of it all, the near certitude of passing bonds for dire repairs creates disincentive for regular maintenance from the start.  This mechanism creates incentives for financial interests and investors, and the bias toward big projects brings in the incentive that got me thinking of these things.  As Dan McGowan reports for WPRI:

Fix Our Schools R.I., a 501(c)4 nonprofit formed last week, will spend the coming months “educating communities across the state about what this plan is and how it would affect them,” Haslehurst told Eyewitness News. …

The organization lists its address as 410 South Main St., the same building as the Laborer’s International Union of North America. Haslehurst said it will share space with the Occupational and Environmental Health Center of Rhode Island, a nonprofit that has an office inside the building.

A quick look at the health center’s IRS filing shows that it’s a labor union organization, with AFL-CIO poobah George Nee as the treasurer.

‘Round and ’round the incentives go, to the point that running things efficiently — in the way people run their households, planning ahead and all that — seems almost to be an impossible task.  Be skeptical of anybody who tells you that this is a “once in a generation” investment that fixes a problem.  After all, when the debt payments subside, the incentive will be to find more projects in need of debt or to build the payment amount into regular budgets.

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A Telling Juxtaposition of Priorities in Newport

Let’s stipulate that public safety is paramount and that lives and bodily injury beat road repair on the priority list every time.  That said, Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop could have picked any government activity to highlight in this exclamation, made in the context of a conversation about school shootings:

“Our number one priority is public safety,” Mayor Harry Winthrop said. “Who gives a damn about a pothole on Bellevue Avenue if we are not safe?”

He didn’t go with his government’s charitable grants, beautification projects, open space, community planning or any of the countless other things that municipal government does that ought to come after both public safety and maintenance of infrastructure.  That tells us a lot about the priorities of our government officials, and we see it in our roads.

Which, by the way, don’t take long to become public safety matters themselves.  When one drives around the state and sees bridges with regularly decreasing weight limits or propped up on wooden blocks and has to swerve onto the shoulder or into another lane to avoid potholes, the specter of harm and even death isn’t difficult to sense.

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