The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

A Rhode Island 501c3 Non-Profit

Question 5

Rhode Island voters will be asked next month to approve a $70 million bond issue - with a total cost of $112 million - for improvements to the port of Davisville at Quonset, as well as land acquisition to expand ProvPort, which is running out of space along the Providence waterfront. This week Jim Hummel takes a closer look at the proposal and checks in with Save the Bay, which had some initial concerns about the General Assembly’s handling of the legislation paving the way for the November referendum.

SCRIPT:

It is concrete almost as far as the eye can see, and sometimes you have to remind yourself this is actually a pier and not part of the mainland.

Welcome to Pier 2 at Davisville within the Quonset Business Park.

Voters next month will be asked to approve a $70 million bond - $50 million of which would upgrade the 16-acre pier, where nearly a quarter of a million vehicles arrived last year; and every month larger cargo, such as these wind turbines, arrive by ship from other countries.

Twenty miles to the north this ship is loading used cars bound for West Africa from a pier at ProvPort, along a 2/3 of a mile-stretch of the Providence River off Allens Avenue.

The remaining $20 million of the $70 million bond would go toward land acquisition for ProvPort. Quite simply: the corporation has run out of space along the waterfront.

Black: ``This is an opportunity to invest in Rhode Island’s ports, which have already proven successful economic engines for the state.’’

Gavin Black is president of the Rhode Island Ports Coalition, which is lobbying for approval of the $70 million bond: Question #5 on this year’s ballot. With interest, the total cost to taxpayers would be just over $112 million.

Black: ``We are in the game and we have been in the game and we’ve been very successful in the game already, both in Quonset and at ProvPort, but to stay in the game and capture future opportunities, we need to invest now.’’

Black says Providence and Quonset are competing with ports up and down the Eastern Seaboard, which have made substantial infrastructure improvements. Another factor: the Panama Canal just completed a decade-long $5 billion expansion project that will mean larger ships like this one and more feeder ships with assorted cargo heading this way. He noted that more than 90 percent of all cargo worldwide travels by water.

Black says Pier 2 is a 60-year old structure that was built with a 50-year lifespan.

Black: ``Cargo is attracted to top-notch wharf space. And that’s what the money will be used for, creating hundreds of jobs in construction to reinforce Pier 2, to handle the heavy kinds of cargo it’s so good at already.’’

Stone: ``We feel confident that both the Quonset project and the ProvPort project are not going to harm the environment.’’

Save the Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone said his organization had concerns with the process the bond went through in the waning days of this past General Assembly session. The original bond was pegged at $70 million just for Quonset.

Earlier in the session Prov Port had presented the House Finance committee with a consultant’s study that called for three phases, including some filling of the Bay, which sent alarm bells off at Save the Bay.

Stone: ``We really are dead set against filling, particularly in the Providence River, but elsewhere in the Bay. We’ve had thousands of acres of Narragansett Bay filled over 150 years and it’s especially sensitive in  the confined waters of the Providence River to fill 31 acres, it’s a pretty big deal, it’s a large chunk of the Providence River.

The bill carving out $20 million for ProvPort passed on an 11-hour amendment to the budget. Stone said a representative of ProvPort contacted Save the Bay the next day to assure the organization the $20 million would be for land acquisition only, Phase 1 in the consultant’s recommendations. Any materials stored there would be moved by land to deeper parts of the port where ships are able to dock. In other words, no dredging or filling.

Stone: ``We take ProvPort at its words, we think they’re very sincere and they’re committed to doing Phase 1, and it is a standalone project. I’m convinced they feel that is a smart investment for state money and will benefit the economy and benefit the city. In five or 10 years this could resurface. There is no guarantee that it wouldn’t resurface down the road. We’ll be here, and believe me we’ll be watching.’’

Another concern is Rhode Island Recycled Metals, which is being sued by the Attorney General’s office for repeated pollution violations. The company’s land is one of the parcels being eyed for acquisition by ProvPort. But the legislation is structured so the state will actually own any land bought with bond money. That was one of the remaining sticking points that got hammered out at the end of the session.

Hummel: ``Is somebody’s tax money from the $20 million going to bail this guy out, because that’s what some people have a concern about.’’

Black: ``Right, those are valid concerns, but I think the key point is the state will be the purchaser of the land, ProvPort will be the landlord of that land and lease it to the tenants, who will then provide jobs, millions of dollars of income for families and even more millions in tax revenue.’’

Black took us on a tour of Quonset after our interview to take a closer look at Pier 2.

Hummel: ``What do you say to the person who says: `Why shouldn’t all of the businesses just a little down the way from here, why shouldn’t they be funding that if you have a revenue stream to do that?’”

Black: ``What I would say to them is that the private sector will. So for every dollar that has been spent of public money down here at Quonset, $3 dollars has been spent in private investment. So what we’re asking the taxpayer to do is invest in a proven winner in Rhode Island’s ports. And once they do, they’ll be laying the foundation for the private sector to build on that success.’’

Hummel: ``I don’t see any organized opposition to this, but what happens if this doesn’t pass, what do the ports do?’’

Black: ``I think if this doesn’t pass what we risk is falling behind our competition. States like Connecticut and Massachusetts are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their ports. And shippers, cargo interests are always evaluating those ports for the attractive features, for the investment, and most of all the political will of the states that those ports reside in to be a commercial shipping port - and that clearly sends the message to those interests that Rhode Island is serious about its commercial investment in ports.’’

At Quonset, and in Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.