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RIDOT Opens New Sakonnet River Bridge to Two-Way Traffic

Tue November 06, 2012 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

The new Gateway from Massachusetts to Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island finally opened both ways in a single span of five days in September, and the largest single construction project in the history of the state of Rhode Island got a test drive.

Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee and officials from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) walked the media over the new Sakonnet River Bridge on Sept. 24 to view the opening of the northbound side to traffic. By Sept. 28, the southbound side also opened and the 18-ton (16.3 t) weight limit for all vehicles — a bane for truck deliveries for many months — was forever gone.

“With thanks for the patience and perseverance of the two host communities of Tiverton and Portsmouth, and the dedicated efforts of RIDOT, we welcome the full opening of the new Sakonnet River Bridge,” said Gov. Chafee.

The new bridge brings tens of thousands of cars daily back and forth from the Fall River area of Massachusetts through Tiverton, R.I., on the east side, then crosses into neighboring Portsmouth, R.I., over the Sakonnet River. It replaces a rotting metal bridge, weakened and corroded by extreme winter conditions and salt water.

Largest Project Ever

Through a $163.7 million contract with general contractor Cardi Corporation of Warwick, R.I., it is the single largest construction project in the history of the country’s smallest state. RIDOT broke ground on the new Sakonnet River Bridge in April 2009. The improved structure is 2,265 ft. (690 m) long and approximately 96 ft. (29 m) wide. There are two 12 ft. (3.6 m) lanes in each direction with wide shoulders.

“Monday [Sept. 24] was an opportunity to have the Governor and members of the press see the span before it opened northbound,” said Frank Pavao, chief construction engineer of RIDOT. “This is the single largest project that the state has ever reached. Other individual projects were $8 to $10 million, others up to $70 to $80 million, but no other reached the $164 million total.”

Pavao took a moment of pride. “It is extremely rewarding to be here at DOT, not only to open the traffic on the southbound side of the Sakonnet River Bridge finally, but to remove the truck post of 18 tons (16.3 t), to open the bridge up to trucking again.

“Earlier, this month, we also removed the 18-ton limit on Bridge 550 in Pawtucket, the bridge that carries southbound traffic on Interstate 95 over the Seekonk River. So, it’s been a really good month. We are pleased with the results and we look forward to continued success.”

Ongoing Work to Finish

But the work on the new Sakonnet River Bridge is not complete. RIDOT met an important marker when it shifted traffic to the new bridge in September, however, the bridge will not be completed until next spring.

It includes a planned 13 ft. (3.9 m) wide bicycle and pedestrian path on the north (Portsmouth) side. For mariners, there is wider passage under the bridge’s center span, with the new bridge maintaining the minimum vertical clearance over the river of 65 ft. (19 m).

When complete, there also will be a parking area and a boat ramp on the south (Tiverton) side of the river.

“Although we have opened the bridge to traffic, there is still work ongoing,” said Pavao. “We have to work for a couple of months on the tie-ins to Rte. 24, the ramps. We also need to complete the shared use — pedestrian and bike path — and to work on the public dock on the Tiverton side.”

The bridge will include many decorative features, including strong LED-based lighting to illuminate piers in the river and elegant light posts in the central median.

Decoratively, RIDOT will insert back-lit bronze plaques on the approaches of the span depicting the emblems of Tiverton and Portsmouth, as well as an anchor, the symbol of the R.I. State Seal.

RIDOT was able to retain these historic features, even after about $34 million was trimmed from the original design budget in 2007.

Another big feat, Pavao added was that, “We have been very successfully working with the Coastal Resources Management Council (C.R.M.C.) and the Coast Guard, regarding the channels and any issues regarding erosion.”

Now that traffic has been shifted to the new bridge, work will continue on the approach roads on both sides of the span. As part of this work, the Department must temporarily close the ramp from Route 138 (Main Road) to Route 24 south for approximately two months until temporary ramp construction is complete.

Once this work is done, Pavao added, “Then, we get to the point, ultimately, where we can complete the project with the completion of a punch list, early next summer and fully open it up.”

Other road closures remain in effect on Tiverton’s side, chiefly affecting Central Avenue, including Exit 5 (Rte. 138/Main Road) on Rte. 24 — necessary changes for construction required to prepare the highway to match alignment of the new bridge.

All construction on the new bridge should wrap up in 2013, including the opening of a shared-use path along the northern edge of the new bridge and the connections to a loop of local streets in Tiverton and Portsmouth.

Maintenance Over the New?

“In opening the remainder of the Sakonnet River Bridge, the Department has reached its goal of eliminating the weight limit for this vital link to Aquidneck Island,” said RIDOT Director Michael Lewis. “We look forward to finalizing this project next year and moving ahead with the removal of the old bridge.”

Gov. Chafee was pleased, but hopes for a different approach to these problems in the future.

“As you can see, the northbound is open, we’re [opening] the southbound side here,” said Gov. Chafee as he crossed the impressive span with a cache of print and online media. “It’s a bridge that came in on time, and on budget, which is always a good thing.

“Unfortunately, we had to replace the whole bridge for lack of maintenance, and we never want to have to do that again,” added Chafee, a proponent for upkeep of major structures, rather than more expensive replacement projects, but mindful that such funding in a state on the verge of fiscal bankruptcy is perhaps a bridge too far at present.

With the opening of the southbound lane, the governor, as well as RIDOT officials, commended the adjoining communities of Tiverton and Portsmouth for their vehicular patience.

“I have to commend the neighbors, who have had to put up with a lot on the Tiverton side [including a two-year, two-mile detour on Southbound Rte. 24 with a loop back north in order to get to their homes or work.], as well as the nuisance on the Portsmouth side, as we finished construction. But we’re getting there,” said Chafee.

“The most important thing is to recognize the two host communities of Tiverton and Portsmouth for all of their support and patience as we worked to build a new and improved connection to Aquidneck Island,” added Heidi Gudmundson of the RIDOT Office of Communications. “We also thank the trucking community for their support during the detour process.”

What Happens to the Old Bridge?

Also in 2013, RIDOT anticipates advertising a construction project for the demolition of the old Sakonnet River Bridge.

A decade ago, the old Jamestown Bridge, a similar bridge linking Jamestown to Newport, R.I., was demolished by a spectacular implosion, worthy of a Hollywood movie. However, in Tiverton, the old bridge is too close to the new span for any blowing up; it must be taken down the old fashioned way — piece-by-rusty-metal piece.

But they will stand side by side — old and new — until at least the middle of 2014.

“Once we complete the new bridge project, I believe that a commitment will be made within two years to begin the demolition project of the old bridge,” said Pavao. “It is very close to the existing bridge, so there can be no demolition explosion. There is also the issue of high tension wires that feed the island. There will have to be calculated section removal.”

A Thumbs Up

When the northbound side opened, passing commuters beeped their horns at the officials, waving to construction workers, giving the thumbs up.

However, that may turn to a “thumbs down” if the governor goes ahead with plans to impose proposed high tolls to cross the new bridge from commuters to-and-from Massachusetts into Rhode Island in order to help pay for it. Aquidneck Island residents have vehemently opposed such a toll.

But for now, the state just wants to beam over its new, very impressive beams.

“It’s going to be a beautiful bridge, with the lighting. It’s going to be a great gateway to Aquidneck Island,” said Gov. Chafee, hard hat in hand.

Additional information will be available on RIDOT’s social media sites Twitter and Facebook.

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