House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he wants the State Police or state Department of Transportation to investigate why problems that led to the closure Tuesday of Cranston's Park Avenue Bridge were not discovered when the bridge was inspected last September. The state Senate, meanwhile, approved Governor Gina Raimondo's truck-toll plan, while the proposal's outlook in the House remains uncertain.
The Park Avenue Bridge is located near Mattiello's law office, in a district represented by Representative Art Handy (D-Cranston.) Citing safety reasons, the state DOT announced at 3:08 pm Tuesday it was closing the bridge, as the Senate Finance Committee was about to take up Raimondo's proposal to use truck tolls to pay for bridge improvements.
The proximity of the two events inspired some wags to tweet references to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and a controversy involving the closing of the George Washington Bridge. The Park Avenue Bridge is on the state's list of more than 200 substandard bridges, and some Cranstonians expressed surprise it had not been closed sooner.
Mattiello did not draw a link between the Cranston closing and the truck toll legislation, but he wonders why problems were not found when the bridge was inspected last September
"That condition did not create itself overnight," Mattiello said during an interview in his office ahead of the House session. "It was probably in existence at the last inspection, so who’s inspecting our bridges and where are the failures at DOT?"
Mattiello said he respects DOT's director, Peter Alviti, adding, "He's new, but everyone else at DOT has been there, so there are failures, and I call upon the governor to find those failures, and to act upon them expeditiously, so our citizens are protected."
The speaker said the State Police or DOT should determine what went wrong.
Raimondo spokeswoman Marie Aberger responded to Mattiello's comments with this statement: "This decision was based on the recommendations of three separate engineers, including a structural engineer at the Federal Highway Administration. It is a matter of public safety."
Raimondo told reporters, "We were told, 'Close the bridge immediately so people don't get hurt' ... I'm not terribly surprised. Our bridges are the worst in the country." She said DOT employees will be held accountable if they fell down in monitoring the Park Avenue Bridge.
In a reflection of the perception of the timing of the bridge closure, the governor's office also released a letter and photos supporting the move to close the span.
The Park Avenue Bridge extends over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line.
On Wednesday, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung issued a statement, saying he "is particularly concerned by the fact that only nine months ago, the structure was inspected and deemed passable at that time. Any connection between the timing of General Assembly action on tolling legislation and the bridge closure would be irresponsible and completely unacceptable.
“In the meantime," Fung added, "Park Avenue remains a primary traffic artery in Cranston and my priority is to the Cranston residents and the numerous surrounding businesses who are severely inconvenienced. Our city is greatly impacted by this sudden closure and I am urging the governor and RIDOT to work as expediently as possible to repair, including investigating any temporary measures that would allow passenger vehicle traffic to cross in the interim, and then fully re-open this bridge to all traffic as soon as possible.”
According to a DOT statement, early Monday morning "one of RIDOT's outside engineering consultants inspected the bridge. The inspection found significant deterioration in the bridge's timber deck, and recommended that the bridge be closed. RIDOT dispatched one of its engineers to independently inspect the bridge. RIDOT's independent inspection confirmed the deterioration, and also determined that the structure must be closed for safety purposes."
DOT said the Federal Highway Administration agreed with the move to close the Park Avenue Bridge. The agency said the inspection Monday was part of a campaign initiated last month to review the condition of Rhode Island's more than 200 structurally deficient bridges.
In related news, the Senate Finance Committee approved Raimondo's truck-toll plan, with Senator Edward O'Neill (I-Lincoln) abstaining, although it remains unclear if the bill will get a vote in the House. The plan cleared the full Senate, 33-4, with Democrat Marc Cote and Republicans Mark Gee, Elaine Morgan, and Nicholas Kettle voting against the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said it's time for Rhode Island to move ahead with fixing its infrastructure.
“Obviously, our roads and bridges are in a deplorable state," Ruggerio said. "Something has to be done, and I don’t see where we should wait any longer. I think we should act now. It’s time to act. Time to talk is over.”
Yet Mattiello says the plan is so sweeping that it requires careful consideration.
He said he's not ruling out a vote, “but it’s a big proposal. It’s going to have an impact on our economy, and I want to know what that impact is, whatever it is, before we act. And I’m not convinced that I’m aware of all the specifics.”
This post has been updated.