Long road ahead for R.I. infrastructure

After harsh winter further decimates roads, Rhode Island commits renewed effort to filling potholes

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2015

With 42 percent of roads in Rhode Island labeled as being in poor condition, the state has attempted to improve them with Pothole Killers, “an on-call pothole patching service” that fills potholes within minutes.

Over the past several years, Rhode Island’s infrastructure, especially its roads and bridges, have face chronic problems, which have been exacerbated by harsh winter weather and are proving difficult to address due to funding limitations. Such issues, though not unique to the Ocean State, have put it in contention for the dubious distinction of having the worst bridges in the nation, said Andrew Herrmann, former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. But recently there has been evidence of progress, with increased efforts to patch potholes around the state.

In 2013, nearly 22 percent of Rhode Island’s 766 bridges were found structurally deficient, compared with the national average of only 11 percent, and nearly 25 percent of the state’s bridges were deemed functionally obsolete, compared with a national average of 14 percent, Herrmann said. Only Pennsylvania fared worse.

“A structurally deficient bridge gets to that condition if significant load-carrying elements are found to be in poor or worse condition due to deterioration or damage,” Herrmann said, noting that bridges may also be labeled deficient if the waterway underneath them is not open enough.

“A structurally deficient bridge isn’t necessarily unsafe,” Herrmann said. Once a bridge earns this label, the city may consider closing it, doing emergency repairs, scheduling future repairs or limiting the loads it can bear, Herrmann said.

Highway bridges are inspected biennially, and “the departments of transportation who authorize these inspections are responsible for public safety — they are making sure that the bridges we’re traveling on are safe,” Herrmann said.

A “functionally obsolete” bridge is one that “was designed to older standards,” Herrmann said, adding that a functionally obsolete bridge may have lanes or shoulders that are too narrow or a turning radius that is too tight. These bridges are still used, but may have slower traffic speeds, more congestion or lower load restrictions, he said.

Many of the Ocean State’s infrastructure woes can be attributed to its location in the Northeast, Herrmann said. The state “gets lots of ice and snow, and that takes a toll on roads and bridges” since road salt — applied to melt ice — can degrade steel and concrete, he added.

“If you do the maintenance and take care of these structures, you can make them last,” Herrmann noted. But he also explained that bridges sometimes only receive temporary maintenance measures, especially because the federal highway trust fund is “approaching insolvency again … which puts the departments of transportation of all the states in quite the bind.”

Rhode Island’s roads are also in need of attention: 41 percent are considered to be in poor condition, compared to 32 percent of roads nationally. The average R.I. motorist spends $662 each year in “extra vehicle repairs and operating costs due to the poor condition” of the roads, Herrmann said.

“This past winter season was the second-snowiest winter on record in Rhode Island,” and “the severity of the season had a significant impact on the condition of the state’s roadways,” wrote Rose Amoros, chief public affairs officer at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, in an email to The Herald.

Besides sending out RIDOT crews to apply “upwards of 20 tons of patching material,” or enough to fill more than 100 potholes, the department also uses Pothole Killers, “an on-call pothole patching service,” that can clean and fill potholes in just a few minutes, Amoros wrote.

RIDOT is also “working to compile an inventory of roadways across the state in need of immediate attention” and collaborating with municipalities on immediate projects, including a recent roundtable discussion about roadway repairs with local leaders, Amoros wrote.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown and Middletown, who serves as chairwoman of the House Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and Transportation, emphasized the importance of Rhode Island’s roads and bridges, calling them “the underpinnings of everyday life,” and adding that “no one thinks about roads … until we can no longer use them.”

Ruggiero attributed the difficulty of maintaining the state’s roads to rising costs exceeding unchanging funding levels. “Rhode Island is the fourth highest in the country in road costs per mile, but we’re 45th in road quality,” she said.

Nearly 80 percent of RIDOT’s $500 million budget comes from federal funding, and “the real issue is that the federal gas tax has not changed” since 1994, Ruggiero said. In addition, Congress’ 2012 passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act in 2012 replaced previous six-year federal highway bills with a set level of funding, making it more difficult for state transportation departments to plan ahead.

While roads and bridges in Rhode Island remain passable even as they deteriorate, maintaining the Ocean State’s infrastructure is important because “it’s how we commute; it’s how we go on vacation; it’s how we get everything we need,” Ruggiero said.

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  1. Let me guess, Rhode Island will find a way to fund the infrastructure upgrades by tapping into their two piggy banks… Brown and Rhode Island hospital.

  2. 80% of the RIDOT budget is federal funding…the problem is not that the gas tax hasn’t changed, it’s that this state is completely over-reliant on federal funding in a variety of areas. No effort is being made by the state to build itself up.

    • We have a series of feed back loops building:
      1. Rhode Island economy is down. Thus, no money for roads. No money for roads means awful infrastructure. This scares away businesses. And we go back to the beginning: Rhode Island economy goes even further down.
      2. Rhode Island look for ways to bring money in fast. They do things that are sketchy and appear on the New York Times (E.g., 38 studios). This damages the state’s reputation. Potential talented workers are scared away because they don’t want the fates of the employees of 38 studios.
      … shall I go on?

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