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You can't get there from here: 2 stalled RI bridge projects leave drivers in detour hell

The prolonged closure of two heavily traveled bridges — one in South Providence and the other two miles away in Cranston — has left thousands of people living a you-can’t-get-there-from-here reality.

In May, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation announced a four-month closure to replace the Park Avenue Bridge in Cranston — hoping to complete the work while thousands of students who use the bridge were out of school. Now, the project won’t be finished until this summer, more than a year after the closure.


And replacement of the Reservoir Avenue Bridge in Providence, which the DOT closed in June 2020 under an emergency order because it was in such bad shape, is on hold indefinitely — frustrating motorists and pedestrians. They include students trying to get to Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School who live on the north side of the bridge, which was demolished a year ago.

“It’s almost like building a moat around my neighborhood filled with hungry alligators,” joked David Talan, the longtime president of the Reservoir Triangle Neighborhood Association. “It’s really inconvenient. But as bad as it is in the Reservoir Triangle, the people who live in Elmwood, on the other side of the railroad tracks, it’s even worse for them.”


What's causing the construction delays?

The DOT says the culprit is Amtrak, which has a severe shortage of inspectors who have to be on site when work is being done on any bridge that spans rail lines on the Northeast Corridor.


More previous reporting:Park Avenue bridge in Cranston unlikely to reopen until at least spring 2022

DOT Director Peter Alviti Jr. said he has had extensive — and so far amicable — discussions with upper levels of Amtrak management in an effort to jump-start the construction schedule, but it soon may be time to go to the state’s congressional delegation for help.


“While Amtrak is promising us additional support, I don’t base our actions on hope,” Alviti told The Hummel Report last week. “I need to set realistic expectations, both for us and the public. In this case, we are basically at a stalemate.”


He said the DOT, which also has to work around train schedules, counted on having 12 hours a week of Amtrak support spread over three days to allow the contractors to work on the Park Avenue Bridge, which carries Park Avenue over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor between Elmwood and Wellington avenues.

Between April and August, DOT had asked Amtrak for 76 days of support for work on the Park Avenue Bridge. It received only 56 days and the contractor averaged 2½ hours of work a night. Amtrak has not offered any support for construction on Reservoir Avenue, which is why construction has ground to a halt.


Enlisting help from the RI governor and congressional delegation

“The next step is for us to engage with the congressional delegation and the governor to begin to have that kind of pressure put on them.” Alviti added. “But given the rationale [Amtrak has] provided to us, I’m not sure that any of that is actually going to help matters.”


The Hummel Report asked Amtrak to respond to Alviti's comments. Jason Abrams, a regional spokesman for Amtrak based in New York City, responded in an email Tuesday by using verbatim the wording the DOT uses on its website describing the status of The Park Avenue Bridge:


"Amtrak provides highly trained personnel during construction and, at times, they have not had as many hours available as previously. For safety reasons, RIDOT cannot work without the supervision of these people. This, coupled with utility work delays, has pushed back the opening date for Park Avenue Bridge and Reservoir Avenue Bridge.  Both RIDOT and Amtrak are working in tandem to resolve any delays.”


When questioned about it, Abrams said Wednesday that it was a joint statement the DOT and Amtrak had drafted months ago and that Amtrak had nothing to add.


The Reservoir Avenue and Park Avenue bridge projects are two of the 200 active construction jobs DOT has across Rhode Island, many being funded by the RhodeWorks program passed in 2016 — and additional projects are in the pipeline because of the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.


The DOT had to close each bridge because they were in such bad shape. Park Avenue, a wooden bridge built in 1906, is undergoing a $11.7-million replacement. The bridge also carries a 16-inch water line, a 20,000-volt electric line, and a gas main.


The Reservoir Avenue Bridge, built in 1936 and a main artery between South Providence and Cranston, is slated for a $13.8-million replacement. It carries traffic on Reservoir between Narragansett and Adelaide avenues, close to Elmwood Avenue.


Doug Victor, who moved to Elmwood from Massachusetts 36 years ago, said he and other community leaders for months pushed DOT to hold a meeting to explain what was happening with the Reservoir Avenue Bridge.


“We appreciate [the DOT] for the work they’re doing, but there needs to be a better mechanism set up so that neighborhood associations have a place at the table and that there’s a complete cycle of communication around these issues,” said Victor, who leads the Elmwood and South Providence Neighborhood Crime Watch Association, with 350 people on his mailing list.


Talan said neighbors feel a combination of frustration, resignation and skepticism. “It’s time-consuming, and we feel cut off.”


It took six months, but Victor, Talan and others finally secured a Zoom meeting last March 3 with two representatives from DOT, who insisted that everyone submit questions in advance. More than 70 people signed up for the 40-minute meeting, but it was plagued with technical difficulties from the start and no one could ask questions in real time.


“I couldn’t get on, couldn’t join,” Victor said. “Nobody [from DOT] responded. I was sending a message. Then I finally got on and couldn’t hear anybody. Nobody made any adjustments during the Zoom meeting to accommodate our ability to get on.”


Karen Hlynsky, president of the Elmwood Neighborhood Association, said the detour the DOT set up after closing the Reservoir Avenue Bridge was problematic.


“The detour was not well planned out,” she said. “People wanting to get from Elmwood Avenue to Reservoir had to go down Roger Williams Avenue, and it was backed up nearly half a mile.”


The neighbors convinced the DOT to install temporary traffic signals at the corner of Narragansett and Roger Williams avenues, replacing a four-way stop.


Talan walked the detour himself, tallying traffic counts and timing the lights at intersections along the route. He wanted during the Zoom meeting to ask the DOT’s traffic engineers about changing the lights and adding left-turn signals at the intersection of Roger Williams and Elmwood avenues to help alleviate the traffic backup. He said vehicles coming off the Elmwood Avenue exit were backing up onto Route 95.


“They should have done it themselves,” he said, adding that the DOT did not have a traffic engineer available on the Zoom meeting.


Victor added: “If that was done first, we would have eliminated months and months of problematic driving.” The department eventually changed the timing of the lights at two intersections and added left-turn signals, but Talan said it took nearly a year.


During the Zoom meeting, the DOT assured the residents that one lane of Reservoir Avenue would be open to vehicular and pedestrian traffic by December, with the entire project finished by the end of 2022. A recording of the meeting, which includes a PowerPoint presentation that detailed the timetable, has since been taken down.


Why isn't DOT using the rapid bridge replacement technique?

Some also question why the DOT is not doing a rapid bridge replacement — building the bridge nearby then dropping it into place, as it did with two replacement bridges on Route 114 in East Providence several years ago.


Alviti said he considered that option, but after factoring in water and utility lines that had to be moved, plus the issues with Amtrak, that would not be the best option.


Providence City Councilman James Taylor said he has had problems getting updates from the DOT.

“People call me and say, ‘Hey, how’s the progress going?’ I can’t give them an answer, because I can’t get an  answer,” he said.


Alviti denies that, saying that the DOT has kept city and community leaders informed about the latest developments.


“We’ve been in touch with them continuously through the entire process here, letting them know exactly what was happening and what the delays were,” Alviti said.


Alviti said the shortage of Amtrak inspectors has been a problem since he took over as director in 2015, but it has worsened with COVID.


“The first notion that we had of Amtrak involvement being a ‘critical path’ — the part of the process that controls the schedule of many of our projects — was early in 2016,” he said. “I could see that Amtrak had limited staff, particularly early on in a project reviewing plans and specifications before we can go to the construction phase. They were having difficulty keeping up with the pace we were setting with our new construction.”


So Alviti had a proposal for Amtrak: The DOT would pay to hire more consulting engineers to help ease the shortage. Amtrak agreed, and that alleviated the problem for a few years.


But RhodeWorks created a spate of new projects, and a new round of shortages. And now, the federal infrastructure bill means that Rhode Island and other states will be doing even more bridge projects over rail lines.


Alviti said that Amtrak received additional funding in 2020 to hire and train more people, but that it takes time, and the state is not seeing the benefits in the field yet.


“This all got way ahead of them," he said. "It’s not just in Rhode Island; it’s in other states too.” 


Frustrations persist, despite DOT's efforts

The DOT has tried to mitigate some of the frustration for those having to navigate the detours. It is funding a RIPTA shuttle at both locations to help students get back and forth to their respective schools.

Victor said despite those efforts, problems persist.


“Live here and try to get anywhere. We’re not the type of neighborhood that has a grocery store right down the block. [The DOT] comes in, and they’re not really inside the experience. They come in as an outsider and impact that inside experience. 


"We need our bridges repaired, we need our roads repaired, understood. But I think we need to have them repaired in ways that support maximum neighborhood functionality.”


Hlynsky, who has had periodic contact with the DOT, expressed the frustration of her neighbors:  “You get to the point of, we’ve had our meetings, we’ve written our letters and we get back this message that it’s not their fault, it’s Amtrak’s fault. OK, what do we do?”


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