Mailing It In

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is being entrusted with hundreds of millions of dollars to repair the state’s failing bridges.  But some residents in Smithfield give the D.O.T. a failing grade when it comes to taking care of the smaller stuff: After insisting on installing its own mailboxes as part of a repaving project five years ago, the D.O.T. has largely abandoned  numerous people whose boxes have been damaged or knocked off by snow plows. Jim Hummel takes their complaints to the department, which now acknowledges it needs to fix the problem - and pledges to do so soon.

SCRIPT

Five years ago the Rhode Island Department of Transportation repaved part of Route 116 in Smithfield. The state told everyone living along Pleasant View Avenue - as it’s known locally - that they’d be taking down their mailboxes and the state would provide new ones, in part because new sidewalks were being laid.
Polseno: ``I had a beautiful mailbox.’’
It sounded great in theory, but Tony Polseno, whose family owns Pleasant View Orchards had a bad feeling about the state’s plans.
For 50 years Polseno has seen snowplows come by, taking out mailboxes that were too close to the road. Polseno had his own gameplan for avoiding the plow.
Polseno: ``In a barrel, old barrel, way back, planted nice stuff in it, they said no you can’t. I used to move it when the snowplow come. Move it every year. Then we had to use theirs and they said that’s the state.’’
So when the state started putting poles in to mount the mailboxes Polseno knew there was going to be trouble.
Hummel: ``When they were putting that pole in did you have concerns about how close it was to the street?’’
Polseno: `` Yeah, they said they’d take of that.’’
Hummel: ``Did you tell them this may be a problem with the plows?’’
Polseno: ``Yes they knew it, the guy who put it in: Yeah, I know it.’’
Hummel: ``And what did he say to you?’’
Polseno: ``That’s it. He says we know it. I knew it was too close the minute I seen it.’’
This is what a mile-plus-long stretch of Pleasant View Avenue looks like today: box…after box…after box….after box; damaged, knocked over or knocked off altogether. And the neighbors, who originally complained to the state after the first takedowns, have all but given up trying to contact the D.O.T.
And many have come up with their own creative way of reinforcing their mailboxes against - ironically - snowplows dispatched by The D.O.T.
Revis: ``The first time they redid the sidewalks they put in the mailboxes and then the second time that they came and did work again after a bunch of mailboxes were being knocked down by the state plow trucks and the town plow trucks they had to come and put them in again.’’
Kostas Revis is a lifelong resident of Smithfield. He says the state dropped off a mailbox off at his house after his first one got knocked off, but didn’t offer to install it, adding he had no idea how to do it himself. So it sits.
Revis: ``They just pretty much just gave us the mailbox and didn’t want to hear anything about it.‘’
Hummel: ``Were they responsive initially to you?’’
Revis: ``No, not at all. Not at all. I mean they didn’t want to hear anything about it. We called, we never got returned phone calls back. Nothing.’’
Polseno: ``Now the mail! Whoa, it was all tipped over. I gotta pick up all the bills, all wet, bring them home, right? There’s important bills. The credit card receipts. My wife says what’s the matter? I said they knocked the mailbox down.’’
Polseno said early on he was able to reach a woman who worked at the D.O.T. Same story: they’d pay for the box, but he had to install it. He has paid somebody to fix his box - twice - over the past couple of years.
Polseno: ``This year I said I do it, go back up and knocked it down again, I go get the parts, put it in, fix it up. Call her, she never called me back.’’
Polseno had to take a road trip to get the right parts. 
Polseno: ``I gotta go way up Woonsocket. You see the business how can you leave here? It’s aggravating, and you can’t get through to  nobody and they laugh at you. Ahhh. What are we going to do? It’s bad, you know how bad it is? Every year, fix the mail, get the mailbox, run up to Woonsocket, oh, I got a business to run over here.’’ 
Earlier this month we contacted DOT about the situation, sending the department pictures of what we had found. We sat down earlier this week with DOT Managing Engineer Robert Rocchio, a 24-year veteran of the department.
Hummel: ``Why would the state insist on its own mailboxes?’’
Rocchio: ``That’s a very good question and it comes down to safety. Safety reasons. We have to make sure, while we want the mailboxes to be sturdy and stand up to the elements or to vandalism, they also have to be safe when struck by a vehicles. That means they can’t be too rigid that if a vehicle hits it could penetrate through to the passenger compartment or launch a vehicle. The mailboxes themselves have to be light enough so if they fly  through the air as a projectile they don’t penetrate the windshield and injure someone so it’s really because of safety reasons.’’
Hummel: ``What sounds good in theory sometimes gets lost in the execution. Talked to a lot of people now who say, what I had was fine. The practical effect is a lot of them are bent over, they get knocked off. The people out there feel abandoned in that when they’re trying  to contact DOT now, it’s crickets.’’
Rocchio: ``Yeah, there’s definitely an issue there. There is a large percentage, I went out there myself, and there is a large percentage of those mailboxes that are either bent or somehow distorted.’’
Hummel: ``So you’ve been up and down that road?’’
Rocchio: ``It seems like a large percentage, something’s not right there, and we’re going to take a look at our standards, maybe upgrade our standards, try to keep them just as safe, maybe make them a little sturdier - maybe more of a balance between ruggedness - and safe and pliable.’’
Revis: ``It didn’t even have the numbers to put on the box it just came with a little piece of paper that had instructions, so I had to go to Home Depot and get the numbers and put them on the box, and as a matter of fact, trying to construct it, it was made so poorly that the flag wouldn’t even stay on. It wouldn’t go up or down, it just kept falling off. Eventually I just got sick of it and I said you know what forget it.’’
Revis gave up and started having his personal mail delivered to his business.
Rocchio said after surveying the situation and talking about it with DOT Director Peter Alviti, the department is now going to take some action.
Rocchio: ``The director committed that he will, we will go out there and replace every mailbox that is bent or broken, and we will fix that soon.’’
And while the residents we spoke with say they are happy the state is finally stepping in, Polseno says the problem isn’t going to really go away until the state moves the poles back from the road.
Polseno: ``They gotta be moved back , yeah, they can move them back another foot, 18 inches at least, go see.’’
Polseno has tried to make the best of a bad situation: this is what he did with his own mailbox, working around the pole in the sidewalk cement.
Polseno: ``Maybe I’m going to get permission to move that. Cut that off, put it in my barrel I had it last year, with the cement, with the poll. When it’s going to snow. Boom! Move it back, you know what I mean?’’
Hummel: ``And that’s what you used to do.’’
Polseno: ``And that’s what I did. Then they keep breaking it up.’’
In Smithfield, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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