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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:

WPRI-RIDOTstanding-053018

 

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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An Elusive Train That Might (Might) Make Sense

When I first began trying to figure out how to actually find a job without dragging my wife out of stop-by-her-parents-to-pick-up-dinner range nearly two decades ago, I didn’t understand why no direct train was available from Fall River to Boston.  As laptops, tablets, and smartphones advanced, the prospect seemed even more obvious.  In the meantime, government (broadly considered) found money for a sparsely used train station in Wickford; go figure.

However, now that the excitement of possibility is ramping up in Fall River, as Kevin O’Connor reports for the Fall River Herald, what jumps out at me are the numbers:

Commuter rail to Boston was first proposed 30 years ago. Gov. Bill Weld and Gov. Deval Patrick both promised it would happen. Patrick promised trains would carry commuters by 2016. Plans called for a $1.4 billion project to improve rail lines through Stoughton. That price has since risen to an estimated $3.4 billion

Baker instead proposed running the rail lines through Middleboro, which would cost an estimated $935 million. It could also be completed in less time, state officials say. …

Plans now call for a train that would stop at a station on Davol Street at Pearce Street next to the Boardwalk Crossings Plaza. Studies show the train would carry an estimated 1,600 passengers a day for the 90 minute ride to Boston, Fiola said.

I’ll stipulate that these are back-of-the-envelope calculations, because I’m not sure what specifically is included in that number of passengers or how neatly the expected cost matches up with serving just those passengers, as opposed to other customers elsewhere up the line.  But these costs are huge.

Even going with the lower estimate (and assuming it doesn’t grow), $935 million amounts to a $160 subsidy per ride over the course of 10 years.  For a single two-way commuter working five days a week in Boston, that’s over $80,000.  Would anybody actually pay that amount for themselves?  And sure, opening up such possibilities in the Southeast of Massachusetts would have an economic effect (although some of it will just be a shift in wealth away from closer suburbs), but that’s a tricky thing to estimate.

It’s important to remember that this subsidy has to come from somewhere else in the economy that, by virtue of the fact that it wouldn’t need a government subsidy, is likely to be more economically productive.

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