Emails: RIDOT ordered Park Avenue Bridge inspected early

Records request by WPRI.com unearths new details about Cranston closure

(Brian Yocono/WPRI)

CRANSTON. R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Transportation ordered an outside consultant to speed up its inspection of the Park Avenue Bridge, which is what triggered last month’s controversial decision to close it down, emails obtained by WPRI.com reveal.

The internal RIDOT messages, obtained through a public-records request, shed new light on why the aging bridge was abruptly closed June 23. The bridge is located near House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s law office, and the speaker expressed outrage at the time that it was closed just as he was weighing whether to allow a vote on Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal to toll commercial trucks to fund bridge repairs.

Mattiello was reacting to speculation that the bridge had been targeted in some sort of effort to punish or pressure him over the toll legislation. At the time, RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said the agency had tasked seven outside consultants with splitting up and inspecting all 230 structurally deficient Rhode Island bridges – and to do so in whatever order they chose.

“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,” St. Martin told WPRI.com in an email June 24.

But the new emails unearthed by WPRI.com show the Park Avenue Bridge was handled differently.

“AECOM was instructed to inspect Bridge 092201 (Park Ave RR) ahead of schedule as part [sic] due to potential localized failure of the timber deck,” Jeffrey Sam, a structural engineer in consulting firm AECOM’s Providence office, told RIDOT officials in an email June 23.

“It was found during the inspection that local failure had indeed occurred and based on the severity of these findings AECOM recommends that the Park Ave RR bridge BE CLOSED TO ALL TRAFFIC IMMEDIATELY,” he continued.

Hours later, and following two more inspections, RIDOT closed the bridge.

In an interview Monday, RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said that at the time of the bridge closure he wasn’t aware that his staff members had ordered AECOM to inspect it early. He argued the messages paint RIDOT in a positive light.

“This is really an example of the process actually working here,” Alviti told WPRI.com. “I really commend the people at the lower levels that had the presence of mind to take a look at this and move it up the chain so that it got the proper attention that it deserved.”

Alviti said he didn’t know if RIDOT had moved up inspections for any other of the 230 structurally deficit bridges in the same way that the Park Avenue one was. And he said he has no way of knowing whether there are other bridges that would need to be closed if an outside inspector took a closer look at them.

Mattiello declined to comment Monday on the new revelations about the bridge.

Alviti, RIDOT leaders informed on June 12

The 109-year-old Park Avenue Bridge, which receives more than 15,000 crossings a day, carries traffic over the Amtrak train tracks. The emails provide a closer look at the timeline that caused it to be closed.

According to the documents and Alviti, the bridge saga actually began on June 12 when RIDOT received a phone call about its deteriorating surface. Alviti said the call came from “a constituent.” The agency was unable to provide further information on the call.

“RIDOT receives many calls like these every day from constituents, police officers, firefighters, legislators, and public works officials from the cities and towns,” RIDOT spokesman St. Martin said. “We do not have complete logs of every caller since they come in through various departments.”

The call caused Angelo Baldinelli, superintendent of bridge maintenance, to go inspect the bridge along with Marc Bruneau, a RIDOT bridge engineer. In a June 25 email to David Fish, RIDOT’s managing bridge engineer, Bruneau laid out the chronology of what had transpired with the Park Avenue structure.

Bruneau said during his visit on June 12 he became concerned about the bridge’s broken asphalt. “I suspected what was transpiring but without access to the underside of the deck, there was no way to confirm,” Bruneau wrote to Fish.

Bruneau said he returned to the office after the inspection and found the plans for the bridge, which showed it had a roughly 25-year-old laminated timber deck. “My suspicions grew and I verbally related to you my findings and that once confirmed that the Park Ave RR bridge may have to be closed,” he told Fish.

That night, June 12, Fish sent an email to RIDOT’s leaders informing them of what Baldinelli and Bruneau had seen during the inspection.

“The top of the timber deck was found to [be] ‘spongy’ in several areas and is affecting the condition of the asphalt wearing surface,” he wrote. “No immediate action is required at this time. We will continue to monitor the deck condition next week.”

The documents show Fish sent the email to six RIDOT leaders, including Alviti. But on Monday, Alviti said he had no recollection of receiving the message. The director said he didn’t learn about the bridge’s problems until he received the recommendation to close it from an outside consultant later in the month.

“The first that I heard of this was when I was handed, that Tuesday morning [June 23], the report,” Alviti said.

Bridge inspection originally scheduled for August

On June 15, the Monday after Bruneau first examined the bridge, he said he reached out to a colleague to ask when it was scheduled to be examined as part of the accelerated bridge inspection program that Alviti had started in May, according to an email. Bruneau was told AECOM had been assigned to inspect it.

AECOM’s Jeffrey Sam “informed me that they had the bridge scheduled for inspection in August,” Bruneau wrote. “I told him that was too far away and asked him to inspect it ASAP. He rescheduled it for Sunday night/Monday morning, June 21st and 22nd.”

“His findings confirmed what I had suspected and he recommended closure of the bridge,” Bruneau added.

Alviti acknowledged Monday that it had taken about a week and a half from the time his staff members first expressed concern about the bridge before he ordered its closure, a potentially worrying delay considering he’d characterized it as being in “imminent danger of collapse.”

“We certainly want these things to move as quickly as humanly possible,” he said. “In this case I think it happened in a time that we could make some improvement on, and we’re always looking to make those improvements here. But the fact is, it happened I think in a timeline that was prudent.”

Bridge deterioration blamed on tough winter

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.

A few hours after the closure, RIDOT chief engineer Kazem Farhoumand emailed three local construction executives – Stephen Cardi II of Cardi Corp.; Jeffrey Bostock of Aetna Bridge Company Inc.; and Jim Manafort Jr. of Manafort Brothers Inc. – to schedule a meeting for the following day to price out replacing the bridge’s timber deck. Emails show RIDOT officials then worked quickly with Amtrak and others to get the work started.

Fish, the managing bridge engineer, sent an email two days after the bridge was closed – on Thursday, June 25 – explaining to Alviti and his deputy, Peter Garino, that 355 of Rhode Island’s bridges have a weak “3” rating in the categories of structural condition or deck geometry.

“I think this is important information to get out there,” Alviti replied in a follow-up to Garino and Kevin Gallagher, the governor’s deputy chief of staff. “There is simply no way of knowing which bridge or when any of these 355 bridges will reach the point of being closed.”

“The only way to control this problem is to rebuild as many as we can as quickly as possible,” Alviti told them. Referring to the governor’s RhodeWorks toll proposal, whose near-term fate was being decided that day, he added: “This has been one of the primary reasons we have been pressing for passage of RoadWorks [sic].”

Unlike most bridges in the state, which are inspected every two years, the Park Avenue Bridge is inspected annually due to its deterioration level, according to RIDOT. Officials argue the bridge’s condition worsened significantly between its previous inspection last September and the examinations that took place in June.

“The pothole in the pavement loosening up this winter probably contributed substantially to it because not only do you have the moisture, the snow and ice, getting down into the wood … you also have then the impact of vehicles going over that, falling into the pothole and impacting that wood deck down below it,” Alviti said Monday.

Not all Park Avenue Bridge documents released

WPRI.com requested all documents related to the Park Avenue Bridge that had been generated since January.

RIDOT and the governor’s office declined to provide all the documents covered by the request, saying in separate letters that some were protected by either attorney-client privilege or the legal exemption for “preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products.” There’s no way to know what documents were withheld.

Meantime, the Park Avenue Bridge is supposed to reopen later this month. Alviti acknowledged the timing of its closure had caused political problems for the Raimondo administration, but remained adamant Monday that he made the right decision.

“Regardless of when things like this happen or when information like this is brought to my attention, I would make the same decisions 100 times, regardless of when it happened or what the circumstances were around it happening,” he said.

He added: “I’m not sleeping easy at night since I got here, especially after having four bridge decks actually blow through in my first months here.”

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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