Greater City Providence

“Driving RIPTA into the future”

So while we hear endlessly about RIPTA’s budget crisis, the agency is plugging along on future planning. The above video, which is slightly treacly I know, outlines some of the planning that RIPTA is doing.

RIPTA has launched a Metropolitan Providence Transit Enhancement Study to improve services in an area that is basically inside Route 295. Possible improvements include GPS tracking, preemptive signaling, branded routes, bus rapid transit lines, and sub hubs around downtown Providence.

The 500-pound gorilla is of course, funding, though identifying funding sources is part of the study. Of course a big part of the funding equation is having a government that does not have the delusion that transit should fund itself and that transit is simply a form of welfare (although, I personally don’t think welfare is a terrible thing, but transit is not welfare). Of course, our ‘leaders’ on Smith Hill would never suggest that roads need to be self funding or assert that roads are a form of welfare, but check what Texas has to say about road funding:

2. When is a given road actually “paid for?”

Just like your car, it never is. You may have paid the note, but maintenance and fuel costs go on as long as you own the vehicle. Once a road is built, maintenance and rehabilitation costs last its entire life, generally about 40 years.

The decision to build a road is a permanent commitment to the traveling public. Not only will a road be built, but it must also be routinely maintained and reconstructed when necessary, meaning no road is ever truly “paid for.”

Until recently, when TxDOT built or expanded a road, no methodology existed to determine the extent to which this work would be paid off through revenues.

The Asset Value Index, was developed to compare the full 40-year life-cycle costs to the revenues attributable to a given road corridor or section. The shorthand version calculates how much gasoline is consumed on a roadway and how much gas tax revenue that generates.

The Asset Value Index is the ratio of the total expected revenues divided by the total expected costs. If the ratio is 0.60, the road will produce revenues to meet 60 percent of its costs; it would be “paid for” only if the ratio were 1.00, when the revenues met 100 percent of costs. Another way of describing this is to do a “tax gap” analysis, which shows how much the state fuel tax would have to be on that given corridor for the ratio for revenues to match costs.

Applying this methodology, revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon.

This is just one example, but there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads we have analyzed pay for considerably less.

To conclude, in the SH 99 example, since the traffic volume for that road doesn’t generate enough fuel tax revenue to pay for it, revenues from other parts of the state must be used to build and maintain this corridor segment. The same is true across the state, meaning that, as revealed by the tax gap analysis, overall revenues are not sufficient to meet the state’s transportation needs.

From Keep Texas Moving

One thing in that is quite instructive, “The decision to build a road is a permanent commitment to the traveling public.” Permanent commitment. The truth is, a road does not have to be a permanent commitment, the state could close a road if it decided it could no longer afford it. Of course the state would never do such a thing, but the state seems to have no problem reducing bus service or eliminating routes altogether. Just imagine if the state decided they could not afford to rebuild the Pawtucket River Bridge and that they were just going to close it.

I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but the state needs to find a way to adequately fund RIPTA.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • Interesting… I suppose that the argument for building a road must then be that you expect increased economic activity that’s taxable as a result of building it, since the road doesn’t ‘pay for itself’ directly.

    I wish our legislators (and people who argue against mass-transit) would realize that public transit is just like a road, -neither- pay for themselves through tolls or gas taxes, but they expand the tax-base. I suppose this is also a reason that ‘problem roads’ are rarely improved-upon, the government is more concerned that you -can- get from point A to point B rather than how long you sit in traffic; in fact, an unenlightened legislator/planner might have an -incentive- for you to be caught in traffic, if they were only measuring their road’s value in terms of gas tax revenues.

    I just got back from a trip to California, and I can say that the San Francisco/East Bay life (hop on the BART, then take MUNI crosstown to your destination) was much-preferable to the LA lifestyle (get in car, sit in traffic on 8-lane highway).

  • I do not think roads expand the tax base as much as people think they do. They simply allow people to live farther away from work. I guess you can say they increase the tax base somewhere else…?

  • The best thing in Dallas when I went there last year (well, number 3 behind my friends and the Red Sox) were the clear attempts at building metro transit centers. Dallas has been one of the bigger growth cities of the last 20 years and they have done it mostly with cars, so it is great to see them actually trying to set up decent transit. I am curious to see how the populace responds. If I were forced to move there though, I could move to a place 15 miles out of downtown that has a rail line and live my life without a car. That would have been unthinkable as little as 5 years ago.

    Now, the downside is that they are trying to go all at once. As opposed to say the Portland model where they built the transit then let the neighborhoods grow, what Dallas has done is spur development at the same time as building the rail infrastructure. So it does feel a little forced, and I do wonder how well it will work. But, at least it’s a try.

  • …the state could close a road if it decided it could no longer afford it.

    Exhibit A: The Henderson Bridge. Just wondering: Did anyone consider, before the repairs now underway, the long term savings that would result from trimming it to one 4 lane span with a less elaborate interchange and decent bike and pedestrian access?

  • It could be one two lane span, as the current lane restrictions are proving. However, I have to assume it was originally paid for as part of the highway project (114 loop) that got scrapped which is why it was designed as such.

    The expansive interchange should be scrapped and will need to be if EP wants to develop that part of the waterfont, I think.

  • I believe Henderson was designed to be part of an upgraded Route 44 and would have connected to an 895 loop around Providence. The Providence side turns south because it was to run down Gano and connect to Route 195. There were also plans for a 2-lane expressway through the rail tunnel which would have connected to the current 6/10 via what is now Memorial Blvd.

    Route 37 is the southern end of 895. 37 would have continued across Warwick and a new upper bay bridge to Barrington/Warren and would have continued north to where 295 ends in Attleboro.

    Crazy right!?

    More at BostonRoads.

  • The Henderson Bridge needs a post of it’s own. I’ve been dragging my feet on collecting my thoughts on it into a post.

  • Yah, sorry, the 114 reference is to the weird part of that road that is a 4 lane highway, which was also part of the proposed 895 loop, which would by the way be kind of a cool Monorail route. Where’s Lyle Lanley?

  • As an MBTA patron, who likes to use RIPTA when visiting Rhode Island, I like the video and the service.

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