RIDOT: 4 bridge failures triggered new round of inspections

Agency offers additional details on controversial decision to close Park Avenue Bridge

(Brian Yocono/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Transportation is mounting a broad defense of the agency’s accelerated bridge inspection program after Tuesday’s abrupt closure of a Cranston span caused consternation.

The Park Avenue Bridge – a 109-year-old structurally deficient structure over the Amtrak train tracks in Cranston that receives more than 15,000 crossings a day – was closed after RIDOT said three inspections confirmed serious deterioration and “imminent danger” of collapse.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, whose law office is near the bridge, immediately called for an investigation of why the bridge had to be closed nine months after a previous inspection left it open. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung followed suit by suggesting the decision could have been meant to pressure lawmakers to pass Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed truck toll for bridge repairs.

RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said Wednesday the new inspection of the bridge – undertaken by a private consultant – came as part of an accelerated bridge inspection program that RIDOT’s new director, Peter Alviti, ordered on May 8 “after four separate incidents on structurally deficient bridges occurred over a two-month period.”

Three of those incidents were bridge deck blowouts, “where the bridge deck deteriorates to the point where it crumbles and falls to the road below,” St. Martin said, impacting the Elmwood Avenue Bridge in Providence on Feb. 24; the Pawtucket Avenue Bridge in East Providence on March 19; and the Big River Bridge in West Greenwich on April 20.

In addition, a portion of a beam fell off the Twin River Bridge in Lincoln on March 20, St. Martin said. All four of those bridges are among the 230 in Rhode Island that are classified as structurally deficient, he said.

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.

RIDOT contracted with seven private companies last July to do its usual biennial program of bridge inspections, and is now having them carry out the accelerated program, St. Martin said.

“They can determine their own order and timeline for their assigned inspections, so long as they complete all of their assigned inspections by mid-August,” he said.

So far the companies have completed 17 inspections, with nine more including the inspection of the Park Avenue Bridge currently in progress, St. Martin said. That leaves 206 structurally deficient bridges that haven’t been inspected yet.

The initial Park Avenue Bridge inspection that triggered the closure was conducted by AECOM Technical Services Inc., but a second firm, WSP USA Corp., was sent out to check the bridge on Tuesday evening, the governor’s office 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.

RIDOT said WSP conducted the previous inspection of the Park Avenue Bridge that took place last September, and at that time kept it rated structurally deficient – a designation it first received in 1996 – and also kept in place a weight restriction that was put in place in 2012. But WSP did not order the bridge closed at the time.

That changed on Monday when a different firm, AECOM, looked at the bridge. “The initial report RIDOT received from AECOM this week was a critical findings report, which called for the bridge to be closed immediately – even before the complete report was prepared,” St. Martin said.

Engineers from RIDOT and the Federal Highway Administration concurred with AECOM’s call for the bridge to close immediately, as did WSP when its team looked at the span Tuesday night, the governor’s office said.

In its new inspection report, WSP said it “appears that the asphalt wearing surface has deteriorated significantly since the September 2014 inspection including the development of the large pothole and shoving/debonding of the adjacent pavement near the west end of the westbound lane.”

“WSP agrees with the recommendation to close the bridge due to the safety hazards posed by the timber deck conditions to the traveling public both on top of the bridge and below the bridge,” the firm’s engineers said.

The bridge closure occurred the same day the Rhode Island Senate approved Raimondo’s RhodeWorks proposal for truck tolls and bridge repairs, which Mattiello has so far refused to commit to passing in the House. However, the speaker has said he supports the general concept.

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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