Protecting the Investment
The city’s $22-million pedestrian bridge has drawn huge crowds - and mostly rave reviews - since opening two weeks ago. But what will it look like a year from now- or five or 10? This week Jim Hummel takes a look at half a dozen other major projects the DOT completed - and in some cases transferred over maintenance responsibilities: who is stepping up, and who is dropping the ball on protecting the taxpayers’ investment?
The city’s $22-million pedestrian bridge has drawn huge crowds - and mostly rave reviews - since opening two weeks ago. But what will the bridge that features Brazilian wood and built-in chess boards look like a year from now, or five or 10? That will depend squarely on the city of Providence, which was given maintenance responsibility by the state Department of Transportation shortly after the ribbon cutting.
It is similar to ‘Construction and Maintenance’ agreements the DOT has entered with other state agencies or local municipalities after completing major projects like the pedestrian bridge. The results have been mixed, and in one case private citizens have had to step up to help maintain another pedestrian bridge that the city of Providence has been charged with managing.
Alviti: “Depending upon the structure, and who owns it, the agreements to take it over (after construction) are different.”
DOT director Peter Alviti said some of the agreements go back decades - others, where the state handed over the maintenance keys to Providence - were finalized just this month.
Alviti: “Some of them we keep the entire responsibility for, some of them we share responsibility with other agencies or government entities. And some of them we just transfer over totally.”
The Hummel Report looked at half a dozen major projects built over the past several decades to see how they are faring today.
The so-called Linear Park over the Washington Bridge adjacent to Route 195 is a $21.8-million project that opened four years ago. It has an 11-foot wide paved bike lane and a parallel walking path. It is the extension of what started out as the East Bay Bike path in the 1980s and connects with planned bike paths that will eventually go to the Massachusetts line.
But on a visit last week we found trash and and weeds growing up out of the pavement. One person had tied a plastic bag full of trash to the railing leading up the walkway and placed an empty plastic soda bottle next to it. Many sections of the concrete had been painted over to cover previous graffiti tags, but graffiti was everywhere on the ramp leading to the path from the western side off Gano Street.
A DEM Spokesman told the Hummel Report that DEM crews pick up trash along the path once a week. But DEM for years has had a no trash barrel policy at the facilities it maintains, including state parks and beaches, and the linear park has no trash receptacles. It is an issue the department has discussed periodically - but it would need to get more funding to go back to having barrels.
The gigantic green lettering leave no doubt to motorists on both sides of Route 195 that this, in fact, is the India Point Park Bridge. The 48-foot wide bridge, which opened in October 2008, replaces a much smaller structure that had been demolished in 2005. The $9.5 million span was built as part of the IWay project.
The DOT allocated more than $1 million in landscaping at the time and maintained the plantings on the bridge from 2008 to 2011, when the state pulled out and the weeds took over.
That’s when the nonprofit group, the Friends of India Point Park, stepped in, creating an ‘adopt a spot’ program, with volunteers pitching in on the landscaping. The group brought in a landscape designer who recommended putting in drought-resistant plants, as well as those native to Rhode Island.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Jorge and Nidia Schumacher were hard at work on the bridge, weeding and watering with a new metal irrigation system, paid for with grants secured by the volunteer organization. They left a pile of dead brush on the Fox Point side of the bridge, where city crews would eventually pick it up.
A decade ago the city side of the Amtrak train station - the first thing many visitors to Providence see - looked like a war zone, with cracked concrete, crumbling stairs and overgrown grass. For five years it remained that way while Amtrak, the state and the city of Providence argued over who was financially responsible to make improvements.
In 2015, the DOT, using federal funds, awarded a $6.9 million contract for a year-long overhaul of the station’s exterior. The improvements included reinforcing the roof of the underground parking garage, building a new plaza where buses could drop off and pick up passengers, along with landscaping and benches.
Just as it did with the new pedestrian bridge, the DOT transferred maintenance responsibility to the city of Providence.
For much of the summer weeds had taken over many of the flower beds and there was more dirt than grass and shrubs in other places. But just last week city crews brought in truckloads of mulch, spreading it throughout the city side of the station, significantly upgrading the appearance.
The East Bay Bike Path was the first of many that have sprung up across the state over the last three decades. The 10-foot-wide asphalt path was built at a total cost of $7.5 million in four phases between 1987 and 1992.
Like other agreements it has with DEM, the DOT is responsible for any major repairs, such as repaving, as well as striping and signage. DEM handles the landscaping. Once a year DEM crews also perform a major cutback along the shoulder of the paths to clear overgrown vegetation.
And while the path looks beautiful in many sections, DEM regularly leaves thick grass clippings along the pavement when mowing the adjacent grass, resulting in slippery conditions for bikers when it’s wet - something DEM has known about for some time, but failed to address.
Over the past two years, DOT dug up and repaved several sections of the path in Barrington and East Providence that had seen tree roots break through the pavement, making for a bumpy, and uncomfortable ride. While it produced a new smooth surface, the department did not address the underlying roots and some are starting to bubble up through the pavement again.
Alviti said there has been an ongoing dialogue with DEM about how to approach the problem.
Alviti: “We’ve been having a lot of discussions with DEM about how we can better manage (the roots) after we fist construct these bike paths, how we can then manage the root growth in a way that doesn’t affect the trees themselves. Because if you just simply cut them back you put the life of the adjacent tree in jeopardy and eventually lose that canopy that you have.”
The $71-million Apponaug Circulator project, which includes five separate roundabouts, carried a steep learning curve for drivers when it was completed in spring 2018. During a six-month period of construction in 2016 and 2027, The Hummel Report found police handled more than 100 crashes.
DOT spent $1.2 million on extensive landscaping around the rotaries and roads connecting them. But some of the trees have not taken, forcing the contractor to replace them as part of the contract at no added cost to taxpayers. Some of the trees in large blue boxes that line Post Road in front of City Hall have also died.
Alviti: “We’re not investing any more money than what the original contract was, whatever the contract was. We’re holding the contractor responsible for some plantings, the contractor and the landscape architect - that had been designed and implemented that didn’t last they way they should have. So they’re replanting those. We’re overseeing that replanting and the establishment of that, to a point where the city can then take it over.”
The Wickford Train Station continues to be a challenge for the state. The $44-million project that debuted among much fanfare in 2012 has fallen far short of the 1,500 daily riders projected by the year 2020.
But the larger problem was an expensive maintenance contract that cost the state nearly $500,000 a year. A federal grant paid for the cost for the first several years, then the state was on the hook.
As a result, Alviti decided to cancel the contract - at an initial penalty of $750,000 - and perform many of the duties in-house with DOT staff, supplemented by a contract for janitorial work. That arrangement resulted in some problem shortly after it began in 2017, when The Hummel Report found walkways unshoveled an elevators malfunctioning for days. But it reduced the cost significantly.
DOT now contracts out janitorial and waste management services. The annual operating cost is now just under $70,000.
Back at the new pedestrian bridge, the city has recovered after a bumpy start when trash barrels were overflowing the weekend after it opened. Since then, city crews have stayed on top of the trash collection, and two uniformed city police officers walked slowly across bridge one afternoon last week, taking in the beautiful views while keeping an eye on the hundreds of visitors who had come to check out the new structure.
A spokesman for the mayor said the city has allocated up to $92,500 for maintenance in the first year to take care of the bridge itself - and will monitor over the course of the year whether that funding is adequate.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.