PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello wants Gov. Gina Raimondo to order an investigation into Tuesday’s abrupt closure of the Park Avenue Bridge in his home city of Cranston, which she is calling a matter of public safety.
Mattiello, D-Cranston, noted the 109-year-old bridge was inspected by the R.I. Department of Transportation last year and left open at the time. RIDOT documents say the inspection took place Sept. 12.
“I call upon [RIDOT] Director [Peter] Alviti and Governor Raimondo to properly investigate where the failures were in DOT and to make sure that those failures are addressed expeditiously and to make sure they don’t occur again,” Mattiello told WPRI.com. The bridge is down the street from the speaker’s law office.
According to RIDOT and Raimondo, an outside inspector from the consulting firm AECOM examined the bridge on Monday morning and recommended it be closed due to “significant deterioration” in its timber deck. Engineers from RIDOT and the Federal Highway Administration concurred with the recommendation after conducting follow-up inspections.
In a formal letter he sent to the governor Tuesday informing her of his decision, Alviti warned her that “it is my professional opinion that this bridge is in imminent danger of collapse.” The bridge receives more than 15,000 vehicle crossings a day, he said.
“It’s unacceptable that we have the worst bridges in America; it’s unacceptable that we have to close this bridge,” Raimondo said Tuesday.
“There was a thorough process and we were advised: close the bridge immediately so people don’t get hurt,” she said, adding: “Frankly, I’m not terribly surprised. Our bridges are the worst in the country. If we don’t take action, we’re going to see more of this.”
The Park Avenue Bridge carries vehicle traffic over the Amtrak railroad lines in Cranston. RIDOT said it was built in 1906 and last rehabilitated in 1991. Unlike most bridges in the state, which are inspected every two years, the Park Avenue Bridge has been inspected annually due to its deterioration level, RIDOT said.
A 2013 RIDOT analysis described the bridge’s condition as “poor,” with a weight limit already in place.
“If they’ve inspected it very recently and found that it’s deficient and unsafe, they did the right thing by closing the bridge,” Mattiello said. “I’m frustrated that, I believe, nine months ago the bridge was inspected, found to be safe but probably in a deficient condition, and the next time they look at it, it’s deficient? It didn’t get deficient overnight.”
“I question the inspection that occurred nine months ago and I question what happened in the past nine months and I question what the plan is to open it up,” Mattiello said. RIDOT may have been “neglectful” by failing to do enough after the September inspection to keep the bridge open, he said.
Raimondo said RIDOT would examine whether anyone failed to do their jobs and if so, those individuals “will be held accountable.” She also said she made the decision to replace former RIDOT Director Michael Lewis with Alviti because she “wasn’t satisfied” with how the agency was being run under his leadership.
But Raimondo pushed back at the idea that the Park Avenue Bridge’s status had changed significantly since September. “Nine months ago it was marked structurally deficient,” she said. “Then we had the worst winter in a long time, and again, thankfully, we inspected it and we found today it had to be closed immediately.”
The bridge closure occurred just as the Rhode Island Senate prepares to approve Raimondo’s proposal to toll large commercial trucks to pay for a stepped-up program of bridge repairs. Mattiello has refused to commit to passing the current version of the bill this week despite pressure from the governor and Senate leaders to do so.
Mattiello noted Tuesday that the toll revenue would not directly fund the reconstruction of the Park Avenue Bridge. But the governor’s aides said the money provided by the tolls for the repair of other structures would free up funding to handle projects such as the Cranston one.
The Raimondo administration said the outside consultant’s examination of the Park Avenue Bridge came as part of an accelerated inspection effort RIDOT started on May 6, three weeks before the toll proposal was unveiled. As part of the effort, officials said teams of engineers are inspecting all of the state’s 230 structurally deficient bridges.
“Thank God we found this before somebody got hurt,” Raimondo said.