In addition to casting their votes for president today, Rhode Islanders at the polls will also consider two propositions on the ballot, regarding nearly $90 million in state bonds to fund the state departments of transportation and environmental management.
The first initiative, if passed, would authorize more than $87 million in state funding to improve roads, railways and infrastructure. The money would come in the form of bonds, borrowed funds from taxes, fees, fines and the lottery system, which the state would eventually repay with interest. These funds would be matched by available federal funds.
Around $3.5 million of this fund would be used by the Rhode Island Public Transport Authority to purchase new buses and rehabilitate old ones. The rehabilitations and purchases, if the bill passes, would start next summer. Depending on the size of the vehicle, RIPTA estimates that the life of the new and rehabilitated buses will be approximately 10 to 12 years, according to state's Web site.
Assuming an interest rate of six percent, the total project and issuance cost for the bond would ultimately amount to just over $150 million with interest included. Rep. David Segal, D-Dist. 2, a supporter of the bill, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that though adopting the measure would mean increased debt, the state could not afford to give up the federal funds.
"Rhode Island has a long history of borrowing for regular highway maintenance ... much more so than other states," he wrote. "We need to move away from that, but we're in a real bind and have extraordinary infrastructural needs. If the bond doesn't pass, we'll lose nearly a half-billion dollars from the federal government."
Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Dist. 3, another supporter of the bill, said RIPTA depends on the gas tax for funding. An increase in gas prices lowers gas consumption, causing RIPTA to receive less money and gain more riders at the same time, she said. RIPTA faced a $1.8 million deficit this past fiscal year, according to a press release from the General Assembly in September.
Ajello said RIPTA should be "unlinked" from gas revenue and must find alternate sources of funding.
The second initiative on the ballot proposes to give $2.5 million to the Department of Environmental Management to protect recreational parks, state parks, greenways and other open lands by purchasing titles, development rights and conservation or public recreation easements to these areas. The project would start next summer and is projected to finish in 2011.
The total cost of the project, with a six-percent interest rate, would be over $4.3 million, increasing the state's debt.
Ajello, who does not support the second proposition, said it was intended to protect lands from residential development. But given the current economic climate, she said, she believes there will not be as much pressure from residential expansion to destroy the land. The state can afford to wait on the issue in the face of its current deficit, she added.
Segal wrote in an e-mail that he supported the bill.
"Environmentalism is a value just about all Rhode Islanders share. We need the bond to pass in order to secure $3-5 million in federal matching funds," he wrote.