The 40-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that serves as Rhode Island's transportation backbone is falling apart, despite several ambitious projects by the state to relieve congestion and improve safety on the well-traveled route between New York and Boston. Conditions on one I-95 bridge are bad enough that heavy trucks must find a different route to cross the Pawtucket River. A major viaduct in Providence needs replacing.
The needs are piling up. A recent study shows that Rhode Island must spend about $300 million more a year just to keep its current roads and bridges in good repair. That is twice as much as the state typically spends.
There is an obvious way to pay for the needed upkeep -- make Interstate 95 into a toll road as it crosses the state. But that idea may be illegal. Ever since the interstate system was built, Congress has prohibited states from charging tolls on highways built with federal money. The constraint posed fewer problems when transportation money was easier to find. But now almost every other source of road funds is drying up, and several states are eyeing the possibility of collecting tolls on interstates that drivers now use for free.