Citing safety, Raimondo orders RIDOT to fast track $400M 6/10 Connector project

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Wednesday she has ordered the R.I. Department of Transportation to fast track plans for fixing the decaying Route 6/10 Connector bridges, saying the situation is growing too dangerous to continue discussing alternatives.

“This is a public safety issue,” Raimondo said during a State House news conference where she was flanked by a number of mayors and public-safety leaders. She described the bridges’ condition as “a soon-to-be-dangerous situation,” adding: “I’ve decided we can’t wait anymore.” RIDOT recommended the move last Friday.

RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said the idea of transforming the 6/10 into a surface-level boulevard is now dead, which will come as a major disappointment to transit advocates who’ve spent months arguing the state shouldn’t spend $400 million just rebuilding a set of bridges that divide up the city. The Providence Preservation Society quickly called Raimondo’s decision “shortsighted.”

Raimondo pushed back at those critics, saying previous state leaders pushed off the 6/10 project for 30 years, which has left no time for more imaginative solutions. “Time is not our friend,” she said. “Time is our enemy on this one. These bridges are decaying faster than we would like.” She said she is still open to tweaking the plan to add bike lanes or rapid transit if doing so is manageable.

But the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, which is part of the Fix the 6-10 Coalition, condemned the plan and said the coalition’s members will be meeting soon to figure out how to fight back.

“WBNA is shocked and outraged by this shortsighted announcement that excludes the community in both process and design,” Kari Lang, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “RI will be missing a great opportunity to, for once, be forward thinking as a state; to right the wrongs of the past (social justice and poor design); to save millions of dollars; to improve the commuter experience and reduce congestion; and, to be multi-modal, sustainable, and thoughtful about climate change.”

Seven of the nine 6/10 bridges are currently classified as structurally deficient. Most were built in the 1950s, and RIDOT says they carry nearly 100,000 vehicles a day.

A map of the nine 6/10 Connector bridges' current condition was displayed Wednesday.
A map of the nine 6/10 Connector bridges’ current condition was displayed Wednesday.

The biggest concern among the nine bridges, according to RIDOT officials, is the Huntington Avenue Viaduct bridge that goes over the Amtrak train tracks. Recent inspections by RIDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) showed an accelerating pace of deterioration there, they said, which led RIDOT to recommend moving forward immediately with replacing the 6/10 bridges as is.

Carlos Machado, the FHWA’s local administrator, toured the 6/10 bridges with Alviti in July. The following month he sent a letter that urged the agency to give the Huntington Avenue bridge “a high priority for rehabilitation or replacement in your current bridge program to avoid further deterioriation and significant use restrictions or closure.”

“Closure or a restriction of traffic … across this bridge is a real possibility that would result in a significant disruption of commuter and freight traffic throughout the area,” he wrote.

Machado noted that several piers supporting the bridge were in critical condition as of 2012, and some of the problems with them had been known since 1991.

RIDOT has ordered temporary fixes to the Huntington Avenue bridge until the full project is ready. (A previous round of interim repairs were done in April 2013.) Raimondo said the temporary fixes are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars a year, and Machado said some of them are “well beyond the intended useful service life.”

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who was on hand for Raimondo’s announcement, said he has agreed to speed up the city’s public input process on how to rebuild the 6/10 so it reaches a conclusion in the next 60 days. That will allow the state to go out to bid by the end of this year and start the four-year construction process in 2017.

“This is just one of seven bridges,” Elorza noted of the Huntington Avenue bridge, saying city officials “will be rethinking creatively.”

Raimondo has also ordered quarterly inspections of the 6/10 bridges that have been deemed structurally deficient, her office said. Inspections are currently conducted on an annual basis.

The $400 million estimated cost to pay for the 6/10 project was included in the $4.7-billion RhodeWorks law passed earlier this year by the General Assembly. The measure calls for new tolls on trucks, set to start as soon as next year, and borrowing against federal aid to help fund bridge projects.

Earlier this year RIDOT applied to the federal government for $175 million to fund an alternative version of the 6/10 project that would have “capped” the highway, an effort to compromise with boulevard advocates that received a lukewarm reception. That application was denied. Another version of the project put forward last year would have tapped federal money for a rapid-transit bus lane.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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