Posted on February 25, 2021
Something unusual is happening next month.
For the first time in decades, Rhode Island is holding a statewide election without any candidates on the ballot.
Money is on the ballot March 2, when voters will be asked to weigh in on seven referendums that would approve a combined $400 million in state borrowing for a broad swath of public projects. Adding interest over the 20-year life of the bonds brings the total cost to an estimated $642 million.
Here’s the breakdown
Question 1 would borrow $107.3 million for public-college construction projects: $57.3 million to rebuild the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center; $38 million to renovate the Clarke Science Building at Rhode Island College, and $12 million to renovate classrooms and support spaces at the Community College of Rhode Island.
Question 2 would borrow $74 million for environmental and recreation projects including: $33 million for state beaches, parks and campgrounds; $15 million for clean water projects; $7 million for “municipal resiliency” from rising seas and climate change; $6 million to dredge the Providence River; $4 million to continue building the parks on the former I-195 land in downtown Providence; $4 million for municipalities to acquire recreational land; $3 million for the state to buy conservation easements on forest and farmland and $2 million for infrastructure along the Woonasquatucket River.
Question 3 would borrow $65 million to build and rehabilitate housing units, particularly below-market-rate units, although details are a little scarce. Previous housing bonds have been channeled through the state Housing Resource Commission’s Building Homes Rhode Island program, which provides forgivable loans to developers.
The bond would also fund “community revitalization,” though what exactly that would be is unclear.
The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council says: “While meeting a critical need, the bond funding is not part of a larger state housing strategy. Moreover, the impact of this bond funding on the state’s housing challenges has been limited, both in its exclusive focus only on the low-income segment of the housing market and in the relatively small number of new units constructed — about 2,000 units over 14 years.”
The United Way of Rhode Island has put $100,000 into a supporting the housing bond.
It’s drawn attacks from critics of highway expansion because many of the largest projects on the DOT’s agenda replace sections of highway in poor condition with more lanes and larger, more expensive infrastructure.
Question 5 would borrow $15 million for the Department of Human Services to distribute to fix up, expand or build new early childhood and day-care classrooms.
Question 6 would borrow $7 million for arts and cultural grants. Of that $2.5 million would go to Trinity Repertory Company, $1.5 million to the Rhode Island Philharmonic and $2 million to be distributed by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Another $1 million would go to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
Question 7 would borrow $60 million, $40 million of that to build new industrial parks throughout the state and $20 million to continue to pay for the reconstruction of piers at Quonset’s Port of Davisville.
The industrial site program would give the quasi-state Quonset Development Corporation $40 million to award in competitive grants for the creation of development-ready parcels for companies to build industrial facilities on.
A pilot program was run by the state Commerce Corporation and the bond would make Quonset, which runs an industrial park in North Kingstown, into a grant-making and oversight authority for the first time.
The $20 million proposed for the Davisville piers comes after voters approved $50 million for them four years ago. The piers are primarily used by an automobile importer, but the state hopes they will help the offshore wind energy industry.
The Rhode Island Ports Coalition, which is funded by shipping, construction and energy interests, is promoting the bond.