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State Rep. Michael W. Chippendale rose on the House floor earlier this month to steer his colleagues away from a bill mandating more studies before any future road projects are completed.
The bill (H7352) required the state Department of Transportation -- whether it was constructing a new highway or putting in a crosswalk -- to use "complete street design principles" that considered the "mobility needs of all users." The department would then have to issue a report showing it had considered, for example, the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians "of all ages."
Chippendale, a Republican from Foster, called the bill arduous and costly. He said he’d rather see the money that would go toward design studies used to improve the state’s roads, because, he said, the state has the "worst-maintained bridges in the United States of America . . . and we have the second-worst maintained roads only to Alaska."
The poor condition of the state’s bridges and roads has been a focus of attention for years. Rhode Island, like many other states, just doesn’t have enough money to repair and rebuild all those needing attention. But we wondered whether we really have among the worst roads and bridges in the nation.
On the House floor, Chippendale attributed his information to the National Highway Safety Association, a transportation entity we searched in vain to find. But Chippendale might be forgiven for mixing up the name, considering the multitude of groups that have weighed in on state road conditions.
Among them: The Governors Highway Safety Association; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; the Surface Transportation Policy Project; TRIP, a private transportation research nonprofit; U.S. PIRG, the federation of state public interest research groups; the Reason Foundation -- the list goes on.
All the groups use the same basic data that state highway agencies submit each year to the Federal Highway Administration on road and bridge deterioration and spending. Researchers for the groups then choose their own various criteria from the data to study and compare, to suit their objectives.
When we contacted Chippendale, he acknowledged that he attributed his statement incorrectly on the House floor. He said the basis of his claim came from a report he had filed away with information from his 2010 campaign. He then e-mailed us a copy of the 19th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems, issued in September 2010 by the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian research group that monitors government spending and efficiency.
Chippendale said he had also seen other reports, as well as newspaper stories that supported his statement.
The Reason Foundation report is based on 2008 data compiled by the Federal Highway Administration. It indeed rated Rhode Island’s bridges and roads the worst overall in the country. (The state Department of Transportation doesn’t dispute the findings. It says the problem is an issue of money.) Alaska came in right behind us at 49th.
(By the way, Massachusetts was ranked 44th and Connecticut, 41st. New Hampshire was the best ranked New England state, at 27.)
The states that ranked best -- North Dakota and Montana, for example -- had roads that were in good condition and had small transportation budgets. The foundation reported that "Rhode Island is spending about two to three times the national average, per mile, on its state road system . . ."
Other recent reports have offered similar findings about the Ocean State’s roads and bridges.
In 2009, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that sets standards for road design and construction, ranked Rhode Island the third worst state in the country for "poor" roads, with only New Jersey and California having worse roads.
In 2010, the consumer group U.S. PIRG, a federation of consumer activist groups from around the country, issued a report that said Rhode Island had the highest percentage of "structurally deficient" bridges (27 percent) in the country. The group, using Federal Highway Administration data, defined structurally deficient as meaning "a bridge has a major defect in its support structure or its deck is cracking and deteriorating."
That percentage has since dropped to around 22 percent -- the fourth worst in the country -- because the Route 195 relocation project eliminated about a dozen of those bad bridges, a state DOT spokesman says. The findings are also in a report from Transportation For America, another coalition of road budget watchdogs.
State Rep. Michael Chippendale turned down a path familiar to Rhode Island motorists when he described the Ocean State as having the "worst maintained bridges in the United States of America" and " the second worst maintained roads only to Alaska."
Rhode Island’s rankings may go up or down a few notches depending on which report you look at and what year it came out. But every one we’ve seen shows the Ocean State is clearly at the bottom when it comes to road and bridge conditions.
Chippendale might have incorrectly attributed his statement on the House floor, but his figures were accurate.
We rate his claim True.
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Reason.org, "19th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems," September 2010, accessed June 15, 2012
AASHTO.org, "Rough Roads Ahead," May 2009, accessed June 15, 2012
Uspirg.org, "Road Work Ahead," April 2010, accessed June 15, 2012
T4america.org, "The Fix We’re in For," March 2011, accessed June 21, 2012
Interviews and emails: Rep. Michael Chippendale June 15 and 20, 2012; Frank R. Moretti, director of policy and research, TRIP, a national transportation research group, June 19, 2012.
Interviews: Chris Mitchell, spokesman, Reason Foundation, June 20, 2012; Tony Dorsey, spokesman American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, June 20, 2012; Bryan Lucier, spokesman Rhode Island Department of Transportation, June 20, 2012.
The Providence Journal, "DOT says 155 bridges in state are deficient," Sept. 23, 2011, accessed June 15, 2012
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