Aquidneck Island to seek 'once-in-a-generation' opportunity for broadband infrastructure

NEWPORT — The city will team up with Middletown and Portsmouth to put together an application to the state for broadband infrastructure funding.

“We’ll be presenting to the City Council pretty soon a recommendation to hire a consultant to assist us with middle-mile issues,” said City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. “Parallel to that is the state’s completion of a mapping plan for broadband.”

Middle-mile networks are the connections from national and major regional internet backbones to local broadband networks. Nicholson was discussing a possible multi-million dollar investment in Aquidneck Island's broadband network during a City Council workshop held Saturday morning.

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Present for the discussion were state senators Dawn Euer and Lou DiPalma and state representatives Marvin Abney (D-Newport, Middletown) and Lauren Carson (D-Newport). They discussed a series of projects the city could be undertaking in the coming years.

What made the broadband discussion possible was the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15. Under the act, Rhode Island will receive a minimum allocation of $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across the state, including providing access to the internet for at least 14,000 Rhode Islanders who currently lack it.

Nicholson said the applications by communities for broadband funding will be competitive, meaning the best will be chosen by the state. The deadline for submitting the applications is May 16, he said.

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“We’ll be in touch with you on that application,” he told the legislators.

“Working collaboratively on broadband with other communities gets more points,” DiPalma said. “And when the state says, ‘Give us your proposal,’ it’s polished and ready to go.”

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity, but it comes down to competitive grants,” Carson said.

Federal funds and surplus in budget could help projects be realized

What made this workshop different than those of past years is the amount of money available to the state, cities and towns for a range of projects. Besides over $2 billion from the Infrastructure Act in coming years, the state has received $1.13 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act that took effect in March 2021 and must be spent within the next two years.

Abney, who is chairman of the House Finance Committee, warned this funding should be spent on one-time investments and not on programs that would rely on continued funding in future years.

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Finally, the state has a $600 million budget surplus.

“This is my 14th budget that I’ve worked on in the General Assembly and I don’t ever recall us having a surplus like that,” DiPalma said. “It’s a good problem to have, but we have to make sure we make good investments.”

DiPalma provided the workshop participants with a three-page summary of possible investments that can be made with the funding allocated to Rhode Island under the Infrastructure Act.

“Newport has some of the highest lead concentrations in our water,” Euer said. “I would encourage Newport to look at the guidance documents from the federal government to make sure the city is doing everything possible to replace our lead service water lines. We have such old water infrastructure in the city. We have to be at the front of the line for these grants.”

Rhode Island can expect to receive $378 million over five years to improve water infrastructure across the state and "ensure that clean, safe drinking water is a right in all communities," according to the Infrastructure Act.

“I would encourage the city to apply for charging stations for electric vehicles,” Carson said. “We have a lot of tourists coming into the city who increasingly will be driving electric cars.”

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Rhode Island can expect to receive $23 million over five years to support the expansion of an “Electric Vehicle charging network” in the state, according to the act.

The biggest allocation Rhode Island will receive under the Infrastructure Act is $1.5 billion for federal-aid highway apportioned programs and $242 million for bridge replacement and repairs.

DiPalma warned that this is not all new money for roads and bridges.

Within that national total of $1.2 trillion in federal infrastructure spending was $550 billion in newly authorized spending on top of what Congress was planning to authorize regularly.

DiPalma pointed out the large amount targeted for Rhode Island roads includes funding previously authorized by the Federal Highway Administration for the state’s 10-year transportation improvement plan. The additional federal money will allow many road projects to be completed sooner than initially planned, he said.

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“For most of the money, it requires a 20% match by the state,” DiPalma said. “That could be a use for our surplus funding.”

Not all the discussion was about mega-projects

Councilwoman Lynn Ceglie pointed out a pedestrian was hit recently by a vehicle at the intersection of Bellevue Avenue and Memorial Boulevard.

“We need a traffic and pedestrian light system where all traffic stops and all pedestrians can go,” Ceglie said. “The traffic pattern there now does not work for pedestrians.”

“At the corner of Bellevue and Memorial, when you get the green light to turn right, you have people in the crosswalk that also have to go,” explained Councilman Charlie Holder.

Carson promised to be in contact with the state Department of Transportation about the matter. “I’ll help you with that,” she told the councilors. “The pedestrian crossing light conflicts with the traffic light.”

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Newport RI City Council outlines series of projects with lawmakers