PROVIDENCE – The $787 billion federal stimulus signed 13 months ago by President Barack Obama has pumped millions of dollars into the Rhode Island economy, government officials and others told U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse on Monday.
Whitehouse, D-R.I., held a field hearing as chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ oversight subcommittee, during which he said he wanted to hear about how the state was spending stimulus money on infrastructure projects.
“I continue to believe that investing in our physical infrastructure is the most cost-effective way to promote economic recovery and create jobs,” Whitehouse said during the hearing, which was held at the R.I. Department of Administration building across from the State House.
“When we replace a bridge that’s in danger of failing or repair pipes that are spewing sewage into our oceans or remediate land that pollution has left unusable, we are advancing work that needs to be done anyway and creating jobs without adding to our long-term liabilities,” he said.
The R.I. Department of Transportation has authorized 62 projects that will use $137 million in federal stimulus money, Director Michael Lewis said at the hearing. As of Feb. 28, the department has spent $50.2 million on projects, he said.
Lewis said the money has been particularly important for bridge repair, allowing work to be done on the Dillons Corner bridges in Narragansett, the Industrial Drive Bridge in Providence, the Wyoming Bridge in Hopkinton and the Chestnut Hill Road Bridge in Glocester.
But Lewis said the state needs more to replace its ailing bridges, which total 161 in all. Lewis said the state hopes to get more stimulus money to support major bridge projects such as the Providence Viaduct – the bridge the carries Interstate 95 near Providence Place – and the Pawtucket River Bridge.
The U.S. Department of Transportation declined to fund both of those projects when it handed out the last round of federal transportation stimulus dollars.
But the money that has arrived has helped, said Stephen Cardi II, vice president of Cardi Corp. and president of the Rhode Island Road Builders.
Cardi is working on a $2.3 million stimulus-funded project to improve Route 91, as well as two out-of-state stimulus projects, and Cardi said he expects more to come. The federal money has kept construction workers employed during what has been a brutal downturn for the industry, he said.
“The projects currently advertised by the R.I. Department of Transportation for bidding appear to be all ARRA-funded projects,” Cardi said, using the acronym for the stimulus bill. “It is obvious that without the stimulus money we would not have many projects to bid in Rhode Island.”
Developer Jeffery Saletin told Whitehouse that a $3.4 million stimulus-funded roadwork project on Hartford Avenue allowed him to start work on a project to renovate an abandoned shopping plaza in Johnston. That project will create 375 temporary jobs during construction and more than 450 permanent jobs once the center opens, he said.
“These funds have been a crucial part of our development program,” Saletin said. “Without them, we simply wouldn’t be in the very positive and hopeful position that we’re in now. In fact, the project would not have started at all.”
Stimulus projects are not just limited to roads and bridges. Stimulus money has also pumped $26.5 million into water pollution abatement projects in the state, and even fish ladders have gotten $3 million from the law, R.I. Department of Environmental Management Director Michael Sullivan said.
“People talk about ‘spending’ ARRA money,” Sullivan said. “These are actually investments of monies.”