Bill would fine utility companies for not keeping roads ‘smooth and bump free’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – For seven months, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan’s drive home was a nightmare.

“Seven months of a really bad road. Seven months of car repairs. Seven months of damage,” she said, recalling the bumps and uneven pavement on Wakefield Street in West Warwick.

Morgan said neighbors called to tell her their cars were suffering; she said the culprit was a months-long utility project.

Morgan said state law gives utility companies a 90-day window to permanently restore roads following the completion of their projects. She said she understands they need to allow the ground to settle before they can completely repave, but she also thinks the temporary patchwork can be better executed.

“There’s no reason the utility company can’t take a little bit of extra care when they’re putting the temporary patch in to make it smooth,” she said.

Now Morgan has introduced a bill she argues could address the problem.

The legislation says “restoration of any altered roadway shall commence immediately after the completion” and should include ongoing work, if necessary, to “keep the roadway smooth and bump free until the permanent restoration can be completed.”

Failure to comply would result in a fine of $500 a day.

Local mayors from both parties told Eyewitness News they support Morgan’s proposal.

“The city of Pawtucket has dedicated a significant amount of resources to upgrading and repairing our roads,” Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We are a distressed community, so every dollar counts. Over the past two years alone, we have repaved 45 miles of roadways and are on track to complete 12 miles this year.”

Grebien said the city has a policy that prohibits work on roads that have been repaved in the last five years.

“This legislation seems to reinforce that,” he said. “We try our best to coordinate with the utilities when establishing our road repair schedule for the year. While we understand that emergencies happen, our roads should be returned to, at a minimum, the condition they were found.”

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung said he also supports the bill.

“For years, Cranston residents have put up with bumpy roads and insufficient patch jobs for too long,” Fung, a Republican, said in a statement. “Some of the ongoing utility projects in our city have severely compromised numerous roads, causing damage to vehicles. This proposed legislation would give municipalities another tool to ensure our roads are as smooth and navigable as possible during repair projects.”

Fund said Cranston adheres to the 90-day permanent-restoration policy.

“This legislation, if passed, would equip us with even more authority to make sure the job is done right,” he said.

A spokesman for the R.I. Department of Transportation said officials there are still reviewing the specifics of the bill, but said they work closely with utility companies to try and prevent newer roads from being dug up. He said they’ve recently had face-to-face meetings with utility companies as RIDOT carries out its 10-year RhodeWorks plan.

“This outreach creates awareness so utility companies can align their capital improvements with ours so projects can be synchronized such that it will greatly reduce the chance of roads being dug into for utility work shortly after we have repaved them,” said RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin. “And even for utility work done on an emergency basis, we remain in close contact to ensure the road is repaired to the same standard of the pavement before they worked on it. The companies have been very cooperative.”

Even some utility companies told Eyewitness News they would be on board with the new policy, including the Narragansett Bay Commission, which handles wastewater treatment in northern Rhode Island.

“It is the NBC’s standard procedure, after construction, to leave the roadway in better condition that it was before. In the vast majority of situations, we repave curb-to-curb after sewer construction,” said Jamie Samons, a spokesperson for the agency. “Therefore, we would certainly not oppose this bill.”

Morgan’s ride home is a smooth one now: Wakefield Street has been completely resurfaced, as mandated, and is a smooth, black asphalt with a freshly painted double-yellow line. But she hasn’t forgotten how it was before.

“They’re doing this all over the state,” she said. “And they need to do it right.”

Morgan’s bill has been referred to the House Municipal Government Committee.