Fung questions Raimondo on timing of Cranston bridge closure

RIDOT chief warns that Park Avenue Bridge was 'in imminent danger of collapse'

(Brian Yocono/WPRI)

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Cranston Mayor Allan Fung on Wednesday joined House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in calling for “a through investigation” into the sudden closure of the Park Avenue Bridge in their city.

The bridge, which receives more than 15,000 crossings a day, carries traffic over the Amtrak train tracks. The R.I. Department of Transportation closed the bridge Tuesday after three inspections showed “significant deterioration,” with RIDOT Director Peter Alviti warning it was “in imminent danger of collapse.”

On Wednesday, however, Fung suggested the timing of the closure may have been related to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s push to get Mattiello – whose law office is down the street from the bridge – to approve her proposal for a truck toll to fund bridge repairs. While the Rhode Island Senate approved the toll bill Tuesday night, Mattiello hasn’t committed to passing it before the legislature leaves town this week.

“Any connection between the timing of General Assembly action on tolling legislation and the bridge closure would be irresponsible and completely unacceptable,” Fung’s office said in a statement.

Raimondo and her aides have scoffed at that idea, describing the closure as a public safety matter, albeit one that highlights Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges. “Thank God we found this before somebody got hurt,” Raimondo told reporters Tuesday, 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.”

Raimondo, a Democrat, defeated Fung, a Republican, in last November’s gubernatorial election. (Somewhat ionically, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – whose own scandal over a politically motivated bridge closing has been cited in the Park Avenue Bridge case – visited Rhode Island to campaign for Fung last year.)

An inspection photo provided by RIDOT shows rotting wood and growing mold on the Park Avenue Bridge.
An inspection photo provided by RIDOT shows rotting wood and growing mold on the Park Avenue Bridge.

Mattiello already called for an investigation into the bridge closure Tuesday, citing the fact that it was inspected last September and at the time labeled structurally deficient but passable. RIDOT said the new inspection that triggered the closure is part of an accelerated program to inspect all the state’s structurally deficient bridges the agency began on May 6.

Separately Wednesday, RIDOT released a list of all 17 bridges have been inspected so far, and said the accelerated program is supposed to wrap up by mid-August. The agency said the effort was triggered by four bridge failures between February and April.

“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 told WPRI.com. RIDOT may have been “neglectful” by failing to do enough after the September inspection to keep the bridge open, he said.

Raimondo responded by saying RIDOT would examine what went wrong, but added: “Nine months ago it was marked structurally deficient. 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.”

Fung, who has led Cranston since 2009, highlighted the importance of the bridge to his city on Wednesday.

“Our city is greatly impacted by this sudden closure and I am urging the governor and RIDOT to work as expediently as possible to repair, including investigating any temporary measures that would allow passenger vehicle traffic to cross in the interim, and then fully reopen this bridge to all traffic as soon as possible,” Fung said.

“In the meantime, Park Avenue remains a primary traffic artery in Cranston and my priority is to the Cranston residents and the numerous surrounding businesses who are severely inconvenienced,” he said.

The Park Avenue Bridge was built in 1906 and last rehabilitated in 1991, according to RIDOT. Unlike most bridges in the state, which are inspected every two years, the Park Avenue structure has been inspected annually due to its deterioration level, the agency said. A 2013 RIDOT analysis described the bridge’s condition as “poor,” with a weight limit already in place.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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