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Rhode Island’s Most Dangerous Bridges

Friday, May 24, 2013


One fifth of all the bridges in Rhode Island are structurally deficient, according to a GoLocalProv analysis of state data.

EDITOR'S NOTE: GoLocal originally released the investigation in November of 2012. In light of the birdge collapse in Washington, we reported the article to review.

All told, 157 out of 763 bridges were structurally deficient as of this September, which means that they are either unsafe today or they could become a hazard at some point in the future if no action is taken to repair or rebuild them. Those that are unsafe today, about 15 of them, have closed. Another one hundred bridges are so dilapidated that weight restrictions have been imposed on them to prevent further deterioration.

“None of them are dangerous that are open,” said Kazem Farhoumand, chief engineer at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.

As of 2010, all those structurally deficient bridges bore an average daily traffic of more than three million vehicles.

Nationally, Rhode Island has been ranked as having the fourth worst bridges, by Transportation for America, a nonprofit coalition. The Ocean State ranks the highest among the six New England states, none of which even cracked the top ten list. (The number one state is Pennsylvania.)

(For a complete listing of all structurally deficient bridges by community, see below table.)

State doesn’t have enough money to fix bridges

The number of deficient bridges underscores a key point: Rhode Island doesn’t have enough money to fix its bridges.

Each year the state spends between $20 million to $35 million—out of $200 million for road work—on its bridges. That level of funding is simply not enough to deal with the magnitude of the problem—and officials at the state Department of Transportation are the first to say it.

“We need more funding to take care of—to really take care of—our infrastructure,” Farhoumand said. “There isn’t sufficient funding. We have to keep making hard choices. These choices are getting more and more difficult.”

But there isn’t any real consensus on how the state got into this situation.

For decades, the Coalition for Transportation Choices has advocated for a more sustainable system of funding transportation projects, according to Eugenia Marks, a member of the coalition and the senior director for policy at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. She said the state has improved the funding situation, praising Governor Chafee for using registration fees as a new funding source and shifting the emphasis away from borrowing for projects.

So far, she said the DOT has spent the funds it does have wisely. “I believe they are fiscally responsible,” Marks said. “And under [Director] Mike Lewis they have become increasingly efficient.”

Critics: state has neglected repairs

But not everyone is convinced.

“It’s a conscious decision to neglect the repairs because they wanted to spend the money on other things,” said Thomas Frank, the state coordinator for the National Motorists Association. “We’re so far down the path it’s no longer minor repairs—it’s major deficiencies.”

But Frank faulted the state’s political leadership, specifically, the General Assembly, not the DOT. He said state lawmakers have decided to use funds from the gas tax on projects that aren’t specifically road-related, such as mass transit and infrastructure for bicyclists. “Let’s start with the things you have to have before you go on,” Frank said.

Decisions about funding have particularly struck a nerve in Tiverton and on Aquidneck Island, where many residents are bristling over tolls planned on the new Sakonnet River Bridge, intended to pay for its maintenance.

If the DOT had only kept up repairs on the bridge, replacing it would not have been necessary, said Antone Viveiros, the chairman of STOP, a citizens group that opposes the tolls. “And now they want us to spend the tolls on maintenance,” he said.

“There’s no forethought,” Viveiros said. “All they do is react to problems.”

The state does have a process for planning improvements to its transportation system. A three-year plan of construction work is outlined in a document known as the Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP. The current TIP, which is for 2013 to 2016, identifies about 30 bridges for construction work. Those bridges were prioritized using a formula that takes into a number of factors, such as the seriousness of the structural deficiency and the amount of traffic that crosses the bridge. (Click here to read the document in PDF form. The list of bridges starts on PDF page 92.)

The TIP is developed through a public process by the state Division of Planning, the DOT, and the Transportation Advisory Committee.

Nevertheless, the outcome of all that planning hasn’t inspired much confidence among some critics.

“The bottom line is you can be driving into Rhode Island from Massachusetts—you can be blindfolded and know when you cross the border into the state,” said Lisa Blais, the spokesperson for OSTPA (Ocean State Tea Party in Action). The same goes for trips from Connecticut into Rhode Island, she added.

She agreed with Frank that the state has not spent its transportation funding wisely, citing a decision to spend $21 million on widening a bike path and creating a pedestrian walkway over the Washington Bridge as an example.

“We need to take a step back and look at the big picture,” Blais said.

Why are there so many deficient bridges?

Limited funding isn’t the only explanation as to why there are so many structurally deficient bridges scattered throughout the state today.

For one thing, Rhode Island’s bridges are older than those in other states because the state itself is older and was settled earlier in American history. “When you go to Utah, they don’t have old bridges,” Farhoumand said.

Other factors: more severe winters than elsewhere in the country, a high population density, and high construction costs that limit how much repair can be done, according to Farhoumand.

However, all those factors are common to New England states and don’t necessarily explain why Rhode Island edged to the top of the national rankings, ahead of nearby states. One factor that does explain why Rhode Island may have more structurally deficient bridges than its neighbors, according to Farhoumand: so much of the state is surrounded by the ocean. That makes bridges freeze and thaw more often than in other, more inland areas. Plus, the salt in the air near sea water causes further wear and tear on bridges, according to Farhoumand.

RI leads the country… in the wrong direction

The rest of the country will soon be where Rhode Island is today in terms of its bridges, according to David Goldberg, a spokesman for the national organization that gave the Ocean State its fourth worst-place ranking. He suggested that the state is ahead of most other states by virtue of the fact that it’s an “older industrialized state.”

“They’re the prow of the ship if you will,” Goldberg said.

He attributed the problems in Rhode Island, and the country as a whole, to a transportation building boom that began in the late 1950s with the Interstate Highway Act, which made federal funds available to states for highway projects and initially required only a small local match. The federal funding, according to Goldberg, incentivized states to undertake more transportation projects.

Political factors also have historically been at work. Politicians savor ribbon-cutting ceremonies in front of new roads or structures—not so much in front of a newly repaved old highway. “It’s not sexy to go out and celebrate the newly repainted or redecorated bridge,” Goldberg said.

The tide didn’t really turn until the federal stimulus program in 2009, according to Goldberg. The federal law allocated funds for shovel-ready projects. As a result, much of the funding went towards maintenance projects, rather than brand-new construction, according to Goldberg.

What bridges are next?

All bridges in Rhode Island must be inspected at least once every two years, according to Farhoumand. If the condition of the bridge is serious enough, the state may inspect it with greater frequency, but that’s decided on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Ultimately, decisions about which bridges to fix next are based upon a weighted formula that takes the following factors into account, according to Farhoumand. First is the condition of the bridge—the worse it is, the more urgent it is that it be repaired. Next considered is the type of bridge: does it have redundancies in its construction that serve as an additional safeguard or not? The absence of any redundancies moves a bridge up on the list.

The DOT also looks at the amount of traffic on a bridge. A quiet country road is less of a priority than a highway that carries a hundred thousand cars each day. Also key is where the bridge is located, Farhoumand said. All else being equal, a bridge on Interstate 95 would be considered higher priority than one on another state road because the interstate is of regional importance.

Yet another factor that goes into the formula is the length of the detour that drivers would have to take were the bridge to become so deficient it had to be closed. The longer and more inconvenient the detour, the more urgent fixing the bridge becomes, Farhoumand said.

Immediately below is a list of bridges that are currently under construction by the DOT. (Note that not all may have been structurally deficient—and those that were may still be classified as such because the state has not yet done an inspection to confirm that the repairs have fixed the problem.)

■ Washington Pedestrian Bridge and Warren Avenue Bridge
■ Frenchtown Brook Bridge
■ Sakonnet River Bridge
■ Blackstone Viaduct
■ Natick Bridge
■ Pawtucket Bridge
■ Branch Avenue Bridge
■ Conant Street Bridge
■ Pascoag Bridge
■ Pocasset River Bridge
■ Randall Street Bridge
■ Ten Mile River Bridges
■ Stillwater Viaduct Bridge
■ Orms Street Bridge
■ Cove Bridge

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