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“Preliminary” – RIDOT’s Newest Transparency & Accountability Dodge

Representative Patricia Morgan had an op-ed in yesterday’s ProJo describing the latest development in the area of tolls and proposed toll-funded projects – the Governor’s toll plan, as it has now become clear, being the biggest bait-and-switch ever pulled on Rhode Island’s residents. (“Danger, danger, Will Robinson! The bridges are unsafe!” “… Psych! Most of the money is going to a 6/10 boondoggle!”)

Honest and straightforward answers are simply impossible to come by. It appears that Director Peter Alviti has discovered the value of labeling everything “preliminary.” By doing so, he can avoid supplying forthright answers.

A reminder: all of this – tolls (if they survive the legal challenge), federal revenue, the bridges, highways, RIDOT – involves public resources and hard earned tax dollars, which means complete openness is mandated. Governor Raimondo will put an end to “preliminary” and all such dodges if she wishes to repair her very poor reputation in the area of transparency and open government.

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Gallison – Now Who’s Out of Order?

Multiple reporters, citing multiple sources, began reporting last night that a major development would take place on Smith Hill today.

House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison is set to resign as a state representative Tuesday as he faces a law enforcement probe, RIPR has learned.

Many of us wouldn’t be experiencing something bordering, frankly, on schadenfreude right now if this didn’t involve a legislator who, in the process of expediting the rushed, non-transparent creation of a highly destructive new revenue source, engaged in the worst kind of closed government conduct by bullying and then shutting down one of his colleagues who was rightfully attempting to get answers on behalf of the taxpayers, residents and businesses of the state.

But he did and we are.

Meanwhile, all eyes on Smith Hill today as these and related events, including a closed Democrat caucus at 3:54 pm, unfold.

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RIDOT, Transparency in Word and Deed

The Providence Journal has presented an interesting juxtaposition, between yesterday’s paper and today’s.  Today, reporter John Hill gives the Rhode Island Department of Transportation the equivalent of free press-release promotion:

Normally, a department of transportation would be expected to boast about a new bridge that spanned a river, or a new highway interchange. But this week the Rhode Island DOT’s proudest accomplishment is a 100-page report.

It is the first edition of the agency’s newly formatted quarterly report, which lists the hundreds of projects that the agency has in various stages of completeness, their cost and timetables for completion. It is available on paper and at the department’s website,dot.ri.gov/news/rhodeworks.php

Department Director Peter Alviti said the report represents the department’s effort to be more transparent and accountable to the public.

There will also be large plywood-sized signs at every job site clearly marked to indicate whether the project is on schedule and on budget, and we can absolutely trust RIDOT to ensure that the information on the signs is accurate and updated.

Hill’s article allows Alviti to take credit for reforming a dysfunctional department, although two omissions are significant in that regard.  First, the findings and solutions that Alviti promotes as if they were his own work largely derive from a report that the department commissioned under Governor Lincoln Chafee (D).  In other words, the process of assessing and resolving management troubles in the department was already underway.  Alviti and Governor Gina Raimondo (D) are just trying to reap the good PR.

Second, the article offers no context of RIDOT’s current challenges with transparency.  For that, turn to yesterday’s op-ed from Republican Representative Patricia Morgan (Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick):

Although the administration of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo worked to obscure the issue, we now know that the 6-10 Connector makeover was the reason the toll law had to be fast-tracked. Truth is, a plan was in place to fix all our deficient bridges and return maintenance to satisfactory levels. That’s the same 10-year plan that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is using now. …

The scope and price of that project, which would involve creating a tunnel and a boulevard, is impossible to determine. Not that we haven’t asked. The weaving and dodging are evident. Honest and straightforward answers are simply impossible to come by. It appears that Director Peter Alviti has discovered the value of labeling everything “preliminary.” By doing so, he can avoid supplying forthright answers.

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Cote & Reilly Call for G.A., Not RIDOT, to Set Tolls & Gantry Locations

Senator Marc Cote and Representative Daniel Reilly make a sound separation-of powers case for this in Monday’s GoLocalProv.

One of the most important checks involves the legislative branch’s ability to keep the executive branch from spending too much money. …

Essentially, DOT is being allowed to set a tax rate, collect the taxes and spend the proceeds, all without any input from any other branch of government. We see this provision as a violation of the principles of checks and balances and an infringement upon the principle of separation of powers.

The assignment to RIDOT of toll rate authority is clearly in violation of the separation of powers section of the Rhode Island Constitution. Members of the General Assembly must stand up and be counted. Do they stand with and for the state Constitution and the residents of the state? Or do they side with unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats against the people?

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Voters Should Demand a Gift Basket of Freedom

Partly so readers can feel my pain, as it were, from reading through all of the legislation passing through the General Assembly, I’d like to direct your attention to H8068, which my Freedom Index description characterizes as follows:

to allow wine producers and distributors and gift-basket retailers to ship a limited amount of wine to residential consumers in Rhode Island, with licensing and other requirements

Mainly out of a sense of relief that any legislation would expand what businesses can do, I marked the bill as a positive, but it’s instructive, nonetheless, for a negative reason.  Consider that the bill creates a new $200 “gift basket license” that allows the sale of gift baskets that “may include”:

(1) A maximum of four (4) bottles of wine per basket;
(2) Food items;
(3) Non-alcoholic beverages;
(4) Concentrates used in the preparation of mixed alcoholic beverages;
(5) Wine-making kits and products related to wine-making kits;
(6) Ice in any form;
(7) Articles of clothing imprinted with advertising related to the alcoholic liquor industry or the permittee’s gift basket business;
(8) Flowers, plants and garden-related items;
(9) Drinking glasses, bottle opening devices and literature related to wine; or
(10) Gift certificates.

Those aren’t the only regulations, naturally.  There are other rules for who can sell, who can buy, and where the sale can be done, as well as reporting requirements.

One would hope that even people who lean toward including government in most of what people do within the society would start to get a little squeamish when we get to the point of regulating what legal products go in a gift basket.

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RIDOT Now Denies They Will Provoke Early Legal Challenge of Tolls

What is going on at RIDOT? Late last week, Director Peter Alviti confirmed to NBC 10’s Bill Rappleye that RIDOT would be putting up a toll gantry on Route 95 within a year so as to provoke a legal challenge to the state’s truck-only tolls. But now, the Providence Journal reports that

State transportation officials deny reports that they plan to test the legality of tolling big rig trucks by opening a single, lawsuit-enabling toll location before building out the full toll network approved by lawmakers this winter.

“Denying reports”? Like they came from some third party, unconfirmed source? Dude, the head of YOUR DEPARTMENT confirmed that this was the plan.

This flip-flop (if they don’t flip again) will do absolutely nothing to instill confidence in the competency and good intentions of a department (or a Governor) already in charge of half a billion tax dollars annually and which is on course to eventually command the spending of billions more, if/when tolls are implemented. (Sure, tolls are not technically taxes. But de facto, they definitely are.)

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Arlene Violet Calls Out Imperiousness of Raimondo & RIDOT

… both at the now infamous “let me tell you something, pal” 6/10 meeting and more generally.

From today’s Valley Breeze.

… it certainly leads the public to wonder about the apparent elitism exhibited by the Raimondo administration where it acts as though it knows everything and the public nothing. A dog and pony show does not alleviate the perception but rather only reinforces that the only hijacker’s in the room are the “public servants.”

Arlene is correct: this is a completely inappropriate attitude on the part of those, both elected and appointed, who have chosen to take on the role of public servant.

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Looking for Another Year of Lower Tax Increase in Tiverton

For the third year, I’m working on a lower-tax-increase option for Tiverton’s budget for the next fiscal year.  In the past two years, budgets for a 0.0% increase and a 0.9% increase that I’ve submitted have won overwhelmingly.  This year, the goal is another 0.9%.

As is the case everywhere, most likely, the budget battles in town really do come down to two perspectives on local government.  The majority of those who pay very close attention to the activities of local government seem to see little distinction between the Town of Tiverton and the agencies that perform its government functions.  Sadly, evidence from the local to the national levels suggests that this is a natural human tendency.

The alternative perspective is that a town (or state or country) is not chiefly defined by its government, but by the people who live there.  Moreover, the priority is broader social and economic health, not the comfortable operation of the government.

I say this because the map at the above link shows Tiverton with by far the highest tax rate of surrounding cities and towns, with the exception of Warren, and the 3.5% increase in the tax levy that the town government wants would bring that gap down to $0.30.  At the same time, the town’s property values are barely growing, and revenue is dropping from all of those sources that indicate growth and improvement: licenses, permits, and inspections.

Meanwhile, if the town’s taxes had increased at a healthy 2.5% annual rate since the start of the century, rather than twice that, total taxes would be 30% lower.  Now, if the town government has its way, the total increase in property value that residents managed, last year, will be eaten up by this one tax increase in fewer than seven years.

That just isn’t sustainable.  A town government can’t build multiple buildings each decade (on debt), keep hiring new positions, despite little growth and declining activity, and habitually give out raises beyond the private sector’s capability without hurting the people who actually are the town.

In terms of a budget, that means starting with an assessment of what the people can afford, not what their neighbors would like government to take from them.

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RhodeWorks Roll-Out Gives Illustration of Redistribution

Even as the conversation around repairing Rhode Island’s infrastructure shifts from fixing 152 bridges (and overpasses) around the state to re-imagining the 6/10 connector, it appears that the first toll gantry may be in the process of erection… down in the southern part of the state.  As previously noted, the Rhode Island Dept. of Transportation is in the process of moving the gantries that formerly cast their ominous shadow over the Sakonnet River Bridge to some stretch of RhodeWorks-tolled highway.

The most likely spot, according to a source, is the bridge near exit 4 on Rt. 95, which goes over the enticingly named Nooseneck Hill Road (Rt. 3) down in the Exeter-Richmond area.  That location was among those listed as probable targets during the legislative debate, with a projected toll of $3.  That would also help explain, for another thing, the appearance of this electrical box down there:

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We can speculate as to why the state would want to rush forward with a single toll gantry before a more-final tolling-and-borrowing plan has been solidified.  The most compelling suggestion I’ve heard has been that the Raimondo administration is already preparing plans for additional borrowing through a revenue bond, which would be premised on the toll revenue and would not, therefore, require voter approval.  The sooner any potential lawsuits can be provoked and resolved, the sooner the state can issue (arguably unconstitutional) debt without paying a premium to cover the risk associated with possible litigation.

Whatever the case, though, Rhode Islanders shouldn’t miss the opportunity for a lesson, here.  RhodeWorks came into being as a statewide solution.  It looks like the great majority of the money is earmarked for a very specific location with very limited, regional impact in the Providence area.  Meanwhile, the first revenue-grab will be in a more-rural area in the southern part of the state.

Isn’t that just the way it goes?  Click on the House and Senate tabs of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Freedom Index, and you’ll see maps of the districts.  South of the prospective toll location, one has large districts and a total of around six to ten elected representatives and senators.   Meanwhile, the Providence area is a dense cluster of small districts with a great deal of representation.

Not only is RhodeWorks an exercise in redistributing money from taxpayers and drivers to labor unions and Wall Street investors, but the program also redistributes from the less-well-represented suburbs to the heavily-represented urbans.

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Just Like That, Cost of 6/10 Greenway Tunnel Project Rises by $100 Million

The Providence Journal reported Saturday that

Burying a rebuilt Route 6 and 10 interchange beneath an earthen cap will likely cost $100 million more than initial estimates, state transportation officials said in a request for federal grant funding this week. The project is expected to cost $595 million, not counting a potential bus rapid transit line with stations, according to a grant application filed Thursday.

How many other cost revisions – not to mention cost overruns – will occur with this project? Rather than simply repairing what is already there, RIDOT is proposing an unnecessarily over-engineered project that gets mighty close to the description of boondoggle.

Note, by the way, that we’re not supposed to call the underground part of this project (what they would build in place of overpasses) “tunnels”. Apparently, they figured out that’s a scary word evoking Boston’s Big Dig project. No, they’re calling it a “capped highway”. “Capped”. It’s just a cap! Nothing scary about that!

The issue I raised previously still stands. Even stipulating the difficult-to-believe idea that the construction cost of a tunnel or capped highway is the same as that of an overpass, what is the comparative maintenance cost of these structures?

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The 6/10 Green Gateway: Yet Another Bait-And-Switch

The Governor sold us a toll plan that was to repair Rhode Island’s decrepit bridges and roads. We were not sold a green vision, especially one that hands-out hundreds of millions of dollars to the special interests. The Green Gateway is yet another example of a big government boondoggle in the Ocean State. Taxpayers were purposely deceived via this bait-and-switch charade that was always about cronyism and advancing a federally-planned sustainablist vision, that will likely cost you far more than anticipated.

Once again the state government rammed through their agenda, without due process and without considering credible alternatives. Where was the public discussion of the massive tunnel, the green-space theme, and the ‘bus-lane-to-nowhere’ components of the DOT plan during the toll debate? Each of these formerly hidden components would result in massive construction and union related spending that would detract from spending on other unsafe bridges and roads.

Like the toll bill itself, the Green Gateway is an obvious hand out to special interests, and fails to consider alternatives. In the past year, the Center, along with other groups, have proposed various viable alternatives to the Governor’s proposal, including P3 partnerships and pay as you go funding, all of which have been summarily rejected. Now, likely the 6-10 “boulevard” concept as well as other calls to simply repair the existing 6-10 infrastructure will be rejected by the insiders. Your family deserves better than the closed public policy culture in Rhode Island.

Lawmakers should be furious that they voted to fix Rhode Island’s infrastructure, and now the focus is on such a small percentage of the deficient bridges. The tolls revenue should not be used to advance a radical federal sustainable development agenda. We cannot ignore the issues with this plan. Do we really trust the RI DOT to come in on time and on budget with this project? It is time for the status quo thinking on Smith Hill to change; we cannot afford to continue to lock the people out of the process though the elite’s schemes.

[Mike Stenhouse is CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity.]

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Why Is RIDOT Inducing the Truck Toll Legal Challenge?

You may recall that the toll gantry on the Sakonnet River Bridge was removed a couple of months ago, oddly, on Super Bowl Sunday night. NBC 10’s Bill Rappleye has learned, exclusively, it appears, that

The State of Rhode Island intends to install a truck toll by this time next year, using the old Sakonnett River Bridge tolls, DOT director Peter Alviti told NBC 10 News.

“I think the basic logic of it is we can get a couple of them up right away because we’ve already got the gantries,” Alviti said. “If that causes a legal challenge, then so be it.”

Throwing the floor open here to speculation, rumor, gossip, innuendo and, if necessary, hard facts. The smart, if reprehensible, thing for the Raimondo administration and RIDOT to do would be to lock the state into tolls by proceeding full blast to rack up all kinds of expenses – the big ones being the purchase and installation of gantries and the issuance of bonds – that could only be repaid via toll revenue. Why would they veer away from this apparently surefire course?

ADDENDUM

In his conversation last night with WPRO’s Matt Allen, NBC 10’s Bill Rappleye said he is hearing that the gantry will go on Route 95, either in Exeter or near Exit 4 (on a “bridge”, presumably). So if tolls are green-lighted, they will benefit Providence and the 6/10 Greenway “Big Dig” yet will come, initially, from toll revenue collected far down the highway.

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Wait, What? Why is Such a Big Chunk of the Toll Money Going to 6/10 Greenway “Big Dig”?

On WPRO’s Morning News this morning, host Gene Valicenti articulated what we are all wondering: we were told that tolls were needed to fix all of the structurally unsafe bridges around the state. Why is so much of that money going only to the 6/10 Connector?

Pam Gencarella & Brian Bishop have a very good op-ed in today’s GoLocalProv, echoing this point and highlighting other serious problems and risks of RIDOT’s proposed, costly 6/10 “Big Dig”, including the issue of cost overruns on such an expensive project

If the federal government is paying for 60% of the 6/10 ‘Big Dig’ and the DOT incurs cost overruns of just 10%, that means an extra $100 million. Will the federal government fork over $60 million more for overruns or will the RI taxpayers pick up that entire additional $100 million?

as well as the ridiculously high price tag to repair such a small number of bridges.

Further, Director Alviti has continually said the billion dollar plan only covers 7 bridges in the 6/10 interchange itself, not the connector to 95! That’s another boondoggle waiting to happen.

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Two Quick Hits on RI Policy: RhodeWorks and Municipal Debt

I see everybody’s wondering how the we-must-borrow-money-and-impose-tolls-because-bridges-all-over-the-state-are-about-to-fall-down RhodeWorks program became a let’s-spend-a-lot-of-money-to-put-a-tunnel-under-nothing-on-the-6/10-connector bait and switch.

While having these discussions, I encourage everybody not to forget the map that Governor Gina Raimondo and the Dept. of Transportation produced showing all of the bridges around the state that would be repaired with the new program if legislators would just pass the bill.  Take careful notice of the legend.  It shows 224 structurally deficient bridges, with 152 marked as “RhodeWorks Bridges,” meaning they’d be fixed, and 7 marked as 6/10 Interchange Bridges.  This shows both that RIDOT sold RhodeWorks as a statewide program and that the agency was likely preparing for a pivot to just the 6/10 already last June.

While I’m writing about being wary of legislation, I thought I’d mention H7551, which is scheduled for a vote in the Rhode Island House, this afternoon.  Basically, it would give every school department in the state a window for the rest of the fiscal year (i.e., before July 1) during which to borrow as much money as they want in order to capture state building grants… without voter approval, naturally.

How easily promises are broken and protections against government excess are swept away.

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Government in the Form of “Let Me Tell You Something, Pal”

In late 2012, I watched former Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) Director Michael Lewis stand before a packed auditorium to answer questions and absorb ire over the prospect of tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.  As I recall, it was one of several such heated meetings in Tiverton and Portsmouth around that time.

The DOT has long drawn public cynicism, rightly, but credit cannot be denied to Lewis for being respectful and remaining professional in the face of an angry crowd as the representative of an agency, a gubernatorial administration, and a broader government that were making unpopular decisions.  Although just about nobody, I’m sure, left the meetings convinced or even soothed about the looming tolls, Lewis did accomplish a central purpose of government agents at public hearings: He left the people feeling like there could be some redress of grievances with government and that, at the very least, elected and appointed officials understood themselves to be making the best of a bunch of bad decisions and didn’t hold the public in contempt for disagreeing with their conclusions.

Fast forward to Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo and the new DOT director, Peter Alviti, whom she plucked from the ranks of a local labor union:

About one minute into Brian Crandall’s WJAR NBC 10 story, Alviti steps aggressively toward an elderly man seated in the audience and jabs his finger toward him, saying, “Let me tell you something, pal.”  After Alviti’s inappropriate behavior in front of the House Finance Committee, a pattern is clear.

Of course, the attitude of superiority to the general public and outright contempt for people who disagree is quickly becoming a hallmark not only of Alviti, but of the entire Raimondo administration, with the new standard being picked up in the General Assembly under Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (Cranston).

It seems as if the folks in government have had enough of us.  They’re willing to go through some of the motions of public hearings and such, but when it comes down to it, they think they know better, and they have little patience for the stubborn people they ostensibly represent.

P.S. — To add on to Monique’s question, earlier today, when guessing whether a 6/10 tunnel would cost more to maintain than  rebuilt overpasses, we can’t forget that whatever goes on top of the tunnel will also have to be maintained, whether roads, bridges, parks, or whatever.

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Question for RIDOT: What is Cost to MAINTAIN a Tunnel Versus an Overpass?

RIDOT is holding an accelerated series of Potemkin … er, public hearings about their plan to repair the 6/10 Connector as they rush to meet a deadline this week to submit their request for federal funds.

At last night’s contentious public meeting, RIDOT Director and former Laborers International official Peter Alviti repeated his statement that RIDOT’s plan to repair the 6/10 Connector, which involves building tunnels, would cost the same as rebuilding the existing overpasses. (Oops, excuse me, we have to call them bridges.)

[Alviti] claims DOT’s favored plan of burying the highway with a boulevard on top would cost the same as only rebuilding the existing bridges

This stretches the limits of credibility, especially as RIDOT’s track record all but guarantees cost overruns. (The R.I. Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s proposed public-private-partnership would vastly minimize potential cost overruns, by the way.)

But let’s stipulate for a moment that the construction costs for a tunnel is the same as for an overpass. Question for RIDOT and Governor Raimondo: what is the cost to maintain a tunnel versus the price tag to maintain an overpass/bridge?

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Yikes: Lowest Bidder No Longer the Federal Mandate for State DOT Engineering Contracts

In today’s must-read-as-always Political Scene, the ProJo’s Kathy Gregg reports that RIDOT spent $41.7 million in 2015 on outside consultants. RIDOT Director and former Laborers International official Peter Alviti was undoubtedly thrilled to point out that this was roughly $5 million lower than the prior year. (Sure, because they want that spending brought in-house and returned to unionized public employees. Not to mention that $5 million will be a drop in the budget in the budget of a department whose spending is about to explode from Governor Raimondo’s onerous, highly damaging, completely unnecessary tolls.)

Further in the article, however, Alviti points out that

“Federal law requires that engineering firms be hired based on most qualified, rather than low price or overhead rate,” Alviti said Friday, in an email. “It is much like selecting a physician for a complicated operation — seeking the one with the most expertise rather than the one with the lowest price.”

“Most expertise”? “Most qualified”? The main point here is that it is alarming and definitely bad for the taxpayer for government to move away from the standard of “lowest (qualified) bidder” when it comes to public contracts. But there is also the concern that “most qualified” would seem leave room for an unwelcome eye-of-the-beholder element rather than a more objective one. What constitutes “most qualified”? True industry standards? Or will federal officials incorporate irrelevant, feel-good, politically correct elements into their official definition of “qualified”, thereby moving away from both cost-effectiveness and, potentially, safety?

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What’s Really In Your Best Interest? James Kennedy Moving Together 6/10 Boulevard

This week on “What’s Really In Your Best Interest?” I sit down with James Kennedy of Transport Providence and a member of Moving Together Providence to discuss the 6/10 Boulevard concept for Rhode Island. Kennedy weighs in on the numerous benefits of the boulevard concept including reconnecting the traditional city grid and savings for taxpayers. I raised concerns about the need for dedicated bus lanes. But, we both agree that there is a better option than the Green Gateway being proposed by the RI DOT. Has RhodeWorks become a bait-and-switch for the Ocean State?

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Why Subsidize Challenged Populations?

I don’t have the time, right now, to dig into it, but something’s been nagging at me concerning the HousingWorks RI study claiming that Rhode Island is going to lack affordable housing options in light of demographic projections.  According to a table on the first page of text in the report, HousingWorks projects an 11.5% loss of population in the mid-to-late-career, higher-earning range of the population (45-64) by 2025, which will combine with an 8.1% increase of those aged 20-44 and a 39.6% increase of those aged over 65.

The insinuated need is for the state to, one way or another, subsidize housing for those groups, but perhaps we should be asking different questions.

Let’s start with public policy of the last decade as a sort of baseline, meaning that we accept the policies that brought us recent shifts as the status quo and are considering policy changes moving forward.  And let’s accept the premise that housing is going to be a problem for early-career families and retired households.

How much sense does it make to push policies like tax exemption of retirement income and tax-based loan forgiveness programs for recent college graduates?  Putting these approaches together increases the tax burden on the segment of the population that’s disappearing from the state (and which we’re assuming can better afford the housing that we actually have) while subsidizing the segments that are already projected to increase (and which we’re assuming are going to have difficulty making ends meet).  Add to that the increased tax and cost-of-living burden that the government may impose in order to address the housing projections.

To some extent, this is the dilemma of helping people while not encouraging choices that increase our social and economic challenges, and a fully considered policy would require some balancing of benefits versus costs.  But even if one concedes that smart policy makers could make the right call, given the chance, which is a point that I absolutely do not concede, our local conversation is nowhere near considering both sides.

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Re-Election Worries? Speaker Turns To Former Republican Strategist

GoLocalProv is reporting that

Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello has hired veteran campaign operative Jeff Britt as a political consultant.

And the ProJo’s Kathy Gregg reported on Twitter that

Britt has been hired by Democrat Mattiello’s Fund for Democratic Leadership as a $25,000 consultant.

Though Britt’s most recent gig was as manager of the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, Britt had previously worked for Democrat Speaker Gordon Fox. (Britt split from Fox over the former Speaker’s handling of 38 Studios.) So strictly in terms of party flavor, this is not altogether an incongruous choice.

It is, nevertheless, unusual for a Democrat Speaker to turn to a non-purely Democrat election consultant for his leadership fund – and to the tune of $25,000, no less.

Kathy Gregg once again on Twitter.

Mattiello on hiring Britt as $25k consultant: : “He will provide strategy&assist me in promoting issues to best serve the citizens of RI.”

Could this be a sign that Speaker Mattiello is worried about the re-election chances of House legislators or even of himself? Is he concerned that the electability of House Democrats has been damaged by their facilitating his heavy-handed ramming through of Governor Raimondo’s onerous, highly unpopular toll program?

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Housing Should Be a Lagging Issue

Issue advocates will always see their issues as critical and leading, but the reality is that housing is and should be a secondary issue at the statewide scale.  (Obviously, it’s a basic necessity and high priority from the perspective of the individual family.)  It’s plainly obvious that people don’t need housing in places they’ve got no reason to live, and it should be just as obvious that the public doesn’t have an obligation to subsidize housing to satisfy every reason that a person might want to live in a particular place.

As presented in a Ted Nesi article, today, housing advocates in Rhode Island attempt to get around these obvious points by presenting housing as if it’s a leading problem or driver of business:

“We are simply not building enough housing, which is continuing to drive up the cost, because the supply is not there,” Barbara Fields, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, told reporters during a briefing on the report’s findings. “The fact is, incomes in Rhode Island have not kept pace with housing costs,” she said.

Added Nicholas Retsinas, chairman of Rhode Island Housing’s board of commissioners: “We’re not going to be able to attract and retain a labor force that’s necessary to attract businesses.”

In short, Retsinas is proffering housing as a business subsidy.  Pairing that pitch with Fields’s view that family incomes are falling behind the cost of housing shows just how much those who work in public policy in Rhode Island have to untangle this issue, because the advocates have no coherent narrative.  Why are those people in Rhode Island, working jobs that can’t support life here?  Why are the businesses here if they can’t pay their employees enough to live?

Underlying this puzzle is Rhode Island’s habit of subsidizing insiders and favored businesses and industries.  If that’s the structure of our local economy, the market can’t differentiate between businesses that can’t survive without subsidies because they’re badly run, bad ideas, or antiquated and those that can’t survive just because Rhode Island government makes it difficult for them to get by.  Most likely, Rhode Island’s approach has a detrimental effect, inasmuch as companies that could succeed without Rhode Island government’s imposed burdens can simply move while those that require subsidies because they aren’t good companies couldn’t survive anywhere else, either.

The economy ought to go the other way:  The state shouldn’t be the driver of economic activity; rather, economic activity ought to benefit the state.  If state and local governments would stop erecting barriers, then we’d develop industries that are valuable in their own right, without selecting for those that are able to survive in our hostile environment, and those industries would drive incomes sufficient to afford housing.

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Nice – R.I. Trucking Assoc Moves to Invoke Fed Regs Against Toll-Funded RhodeWorks

The Providence Business News reports that the R.I. Trucking Association is attempting to bring to bear arguably the heaviest, most terrible artillery of all against Governor Raimondo’s toll-funded “bridge” repair program: federal regulations.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation sent March 18, trucking association President and CEO Christopher J. Maxwell said the proposed bridge and overpass rebuilding program should require a National Environmental Policy Act review because it will use federal funds.

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Who Should Decide on the 6/10 Connector?

As with legalizing marijuana, what to do with the 6/10 connector is a state-level policy debate on which I’m more ambivalent than on matters that consume most of my attention.  In large part, my ambivalence arises from my general feeling that I don’t have enough personal investment in the infrastructure on that side of Providence or, alternately, enough expertise about the relevant questions to make my opinion of much value.  Ultimately, all I could do is offer a statement of principle, and that’s not generally very helpful, irking those whose view clashes with the principle and disappointing those whose view accords with it.

With that lengthy (boulevard-esque) opening disclaimer complete, I will say that my principles harmonize more with those who favor replacing the 6/10 connector highway with an urban boulevard for the reason that transportation engineer Ian Lockwood expresses in Kevin Proft’s recent ecoRI article on the question:

“There comes a point, from a policy perspective, where it makes sense for the community to have regional commuters driving on (the community’s) terms, and not on some kind of long-distance commute terms,” he said.

Nobody’s more invested in that spot on the planet than the people who live and work there and/or own property in the immediate area.  The fact that some suburban commuter’s habits were developed on the assumption that the people in those neighborhoods of Providence had accepted a highway next door once upon a time doesn’t give that commuter a lifetime claim to infrastructure saving him or her 20 minutes (or whatever) per workday.

Look at a map and/or take a drive.  295 isn’t exactly a terrible inconvenience for points north.  Likewise, if the highway-only option for points between the northern and southern tips of 295 is to take 6 to 10 south to Cranston and then head north, that wouldn’t be the end of the world.  People could adjust, particularly over time, as home buyers planning to commute change their habits.

Other than that, though, the whole thing is beyond my expertise.  Whether the people vested in the area around 6/10 connector should expect a boulevard to be non-stop traffic while habits adjust is a question for them to answer, for example.  Who knows but that somebody will have a moment of inspiration for another path that a cut-through highway could traverse.

In a part of the country that expanded ad hoc as the world evolved from foot paths to highways, we can’t mistake the existence of a highway as the necessity for a highway.

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Vitally Important that the R.I. Supreme Court Weigh in Now on Truck-Only Tolls

Rep Patricia Morgan is absolutely correct. Governor Raimondo needs to ask the R.I. Supreme Court now, not after she has committed taxpayers to hundreds of millions of dollars in borrowing, whether tolls on trucks only is constitutional. If the governor refuses to do so, it is confirmation that she fully intends for tolls to go on cars under the political cover of a court ruling — but one that would come years down the road, after taxpayers are on the hook to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Wall Street and to her pet political friends.

Republican state Rep. Patricia Morgan has introduced a resolution urging Governor Raimondo to seek a Rhode Island Supreme Court opinion on the constitutionality of her Assembly-passed plan to toll tractor-trailer trucks before the tolling gantries go up at multiple locations on six Rhode Island highways.

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Stronger Leverage for Failure to Pay Tolls Would Only Applies to Newport Bridge … Yeah, That’s the Ticket

Huh, this must be a huge coincidence, following as it does closely on the heels of the passage of the governor’s horrendous toll plan: bills have popped up that would give the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority greater leverage to punish people and collect from those who fail to pay tolls when crossing the Newport Pell Bridge.

A series of bills filed in the General Assembly on behalf of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority would allow the agency to report toll violators to the Division of Motor Vehicles, which would place a hold on license and registration renewals.

Technically, the new statewide tolls – collections and presumably punishments – will be administered by RIDOT. [Correction.] In fact, statewide tolls will be administered by the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority. But So is there any doubt that, if these bills pass, this punishment and leverage would quickly be extended to toll violators around the state, not just those crossing the Newport Bridge?

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RIDOT’s $231 and Nose-Thumbing at Rep. Patricia Morgan

At this point, the attempt of the RI Dept. of Transportation (RIDOT) to charge Republican State Representative Patricia Morgan (Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) $231 for the fulfillment of an information request is part of a clear pattern of unprofessional behavior toward this particular elected official.  However, two points of broad interest arise from the controversy.

The first is the legalism that our current approach to the law enables:

“The law provides no exemption for state legislators, however it does provide for a waiver if requested,” [DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin] said. “Representative Morgan has requested a waiver and RIDOT will be granting that waiver and will not require payment.”

I’ve long complained that our good-government laws have had the effect of giving government officials an excuse to pretend as if writing down minimal requirements for transparency (or ethics, for that matter) means that all prior expectations for more than the minimum are suddenly wiped away, if not made illegal.  Must it really be written down in the law that the people’s representatives should have access to information as part of the basic operation of government?

The second important observation is that RIDOT is claiming that it took 16 hours for state employees to compile a list of six months’ worth of change orders.  Even if Morgan’s request was more detailed than the article makes it sound, how is that possible?

During the public battle over the toll-and-borrow RhodeWorks program, the public was assured repeatedly that RIDOT is running so much better now that it has a former labor union guy in charge that it’s barely fair to look at the agency’s long history of ineptitude.  Shouldn’t such a well-redesigned machine have a running list of change orders, at a very minimum?

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It Begins: National Trucking Association Moves Upcoming Meeting out of RI Due to Tolls

So this is not good. Toll gantries are three years away (by the way, what was the peddle-to-the-metal urgency to get tolls passed seeing it’s going to take so long to implement them?) and they’re already chasing business away.

A trucking group has changed its plan to hold a national meeting in Newport in the summer of 2018, in protest of the recently approved RhodeWorks program.

RhodeWorks imposes tolls on some trucks to pay for repairs to the state’s aging bridges. “It’s not that we don’t want to be in Newport, it’s that we can’t support a state where the administration seems to be anti-truck,” said Brian Parke, Northeast chairman of the Trucking Association Executives Council.

Worse, the governor responds with an I-got-mine shrug.

In a statement, Governor Raimondo spokeswoman Marie Aberger wrote, “We’re pleased Rhode Island will now have the money we need to rebuild our roads, as well as putting people to work.

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Tolls For Thee But Tax Amnesty for Me?

Nice work by WPRI’s Dan McGowan ascertaining that Rep. Thomas Palangio (D, Providence) might well have benefited from a bill he was co-sponsoring.

A Rhode Island state representative has pulled his name from legislation that would put a 10-year statute of limitations on the collection of state taxes after acknowledging that he may owe the state more than $120,000 in back taxes.

The hypocrisy here is palpable. Rep. Palangio voted to legalize a whole new, highly destructive revenue stream (tolls) … but appears to have been caught trying to relieve himself of his obligation to pay an existing one.

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