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Traffic-Weary Pawtucket Residents Marvel at New Arched Steel Span

Tue December 06, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

There is a rainbow of steel going up between Exits 28 and 29 on Interstate 95 in Rhode Island. When finished, it will be an $81 million bridge that reminds commuters of what a great thriving mill city Pawtucket, R.I., used to be.

The Pawtucket River Bridge project, supervised by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), consists of three bridges that are going up under the spread of one arch reaching two river shores at the site of the new Pawtucket River Bridge. The spans — one a new section of highway, two others, smaller, underneath the main — will alleviate traffic over Interstate 95 and around the thinner connecting streets which have bottlenecked onto the North-South highway for too many decades.

Passersby marvel at the arched steel beams rising these pre-winter days like a labyrinth; the framework of what will be another distinctive highway landmark in the nation’s smallest state.

“This city has seen some tough times,” said Marcel Gadbois who has lived in it for more than 80 years. “This thing going up is a work of art. It’s a steel beauty. When people pass Pawtucket after it’s finished, maybe they will stop and take a good look at us before driving off. I haven’t seen anything like this since they finished the IWAY (the $610 million series of new highways finished last year) a few miles south in Providence. The state may be broke, but they keep building it up.”

The new bridge that will make a difference IS different.

“It is going to be much different to what we are used to seeing,” said Frank Carrao, deputy chief engineer of RIDOT. “It is being built, being set up, as a Gateway to the city of Pawtucket, as seen from the streets, with these beautiful, metallic steel gray arches, almost like a rainbow that touches the land on either side of the river. The bottom of the arch touches each shoreline.”

Critical Mid-Build

Replacement of the Pawtucket River Bridge is a top priority for the Department. Through an $81 million contract with S&R Corporation/Pihl Inc., in joint collaboration, the bridge is composed of two structures that carry I-95 over the Seekonk River.

The project began in October 2010. At a critical mid-point, it is scheduled to be completed sometime in the summer of 2013. But this bridge work is really 3-in-1.

“What we are doing is building three bridges. We first built this Collector Distribution Road, built to the right of the northbound side of I-95,” added Carrao. “We build this CDR first, and it allows us to construct the bridge without impeded traffic on Route 95 at this time. Once it is built, we will take the northbound traffic off the CDR and it will work as an on-ramp to George Street and an off-ramp to School Street, below the bridge.

“In peak hours, you used to have to merge traffic there onto the highway,” said Carrao. “It was a terrible bottleneck. With this new roadway, commuters can get on and off the side streets. We are building the northbound roadway. Then, we demolish the (old) northbound side. Then, we take the existing southbound traffic onto a new roadway and then demolish the southbound side. It enables the traffic to be where it needs to be.”

RIDOT closed portions of adjacent city streets in Pawtucket in May. These closures will remain in effect until spring 2012.

Target for Traffic: May 2012

As part of the contract — currently the second biggest in the state after the Sakonnet River Bridge project, which is replacing the bridge connecting Tiverton and Portsmouth — RIDOT is rehabilitating other bridges near the I-95 corridor.

The first of these involve two bridges carrying city streets over I-95. Garden Street, which is a one-way road southbound, is now closed completely. The northbound half of the nearby George Street Bridge is closed and only southbound traffic is allowed to pass. All traffic has been rerouted to the Connector Road.

The project is scheduled for completion in summer 2013. Enough construction should be completed by late spring 2012 to enable the Department to shift traffic to new structures and eliminate the bridge’s 18-ton weight limit. RIDOT has an early incentive clause with its contractor, with a maximum bonus of $4.5 million, which could result in the weight limit being lifted even sooner.

“We have posted an 18-ton limit and are rerouting truck traffic off these roads,” said Carrao. “The work is set to finish in June 2013, but a requirement of the contract right now, is that we need all traffic to be traveling on the new structure as of May 2012. We would remove the current tonnage posting by then on the new bridge and would be restoring truck traffic on the bridge.

“It is a very important issue for the community,” added Carrao. “They want to get the trucks on the main highways or the Interstate, where they belong. That is why we have set such an aggressive date, by May 2012.”

Very favorable October and November weather —only one Halloween storm and higher than normal temperatures — have helped the non-stop day and night work.

“In terms of traffic disruptions for the city, we are entering into one of the more challenging phases of the project,” RIDOT Director Michael P. Lewis said in a press release. “The Department urges motorists to familiarize themselves with the detour routes and allow additional time to reach their destination.”

Crews from collaborating S&R/Pihl, Inc. need all the help they can get from favorable conditions.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Carrao. “We are 130 days behind schedule, as it relates to that May 2012 (goal) date. Some of it was weather-related, but difficult conditions required modifications as the contractor has gone along. There is a multitude of reasons driving the delay at this time.”

Crews Never Stop

But Carrao added that the hard work by round-the-clock crews — none of which is interrupting highway driving — is making up quickly for lost time.

“During the last six weeks, we made up some of the time we lost and we continue to make up time as we go along,” he said. “Any contract is a fluid document. The construction elements change. But the contractors are working seven days a week to ultimately meet our goal of getting the main traffic on the new structure by May 2012. They are putting every effort into it, working around the clock to meet it.”

The new structure – unlike most replacement bridges – will actually be smaller than the current highway bridges (one each north and south).

“The new structure itself will be 150 feet from shore to shore, both north and southbound,” said Carrao. “Right now, it is significantly shorter than the existing two bridges. It spans the river and reaches the local streets below it on either side. We are building two smaller structures to span the local streets that parallel the river.”

The amount of materials being shipped to the site is formidable.

“There is a massive, massive amount of concrete being used that acts as the anchor part of the structure,” said Carrao.

According to the project manager, here are some numbers specific to what RIDOT has labeled as Bridge 550:

1. The total span between the abutments is 351 ft. 6 in. (107 m).

2. There are 11 total arches between all the phases with each made up of 3 sections (33 total pieces)

3. The two end sections are 110 ft., 9 7/8 in. (33.6 m) long each, and the middle sections are 94 ft., ¼ in. (28 m).

4. The end sections each weigh 115,000 lb. (52,163 kg) and the center sections weigh 100,000 lb. (45,359 kg). The total weight for all 11 arches is 1,815 tons (1,646 t). There is an additional 500 tons (453 t) in steel above the arches for the spandrels and stringers for a total weight of approximately 2,300 tons (2,086 t) for all the steel on the bridge.

5. There are approximately 15,000 bolts associated with the erection of the arches, and another 18,000 bolts used to erect the steel components above the arches including the spandrel columns, crossbeams, diaphragms, wind bracing and floor stringers.

6. There is a total of approximately 15,000 cu. yds. (11,468 cu m), or 30,000 tons (27,215 t) of concrete used in total for both abutments for all three phases.

Critical suppliers of these massive amounts of materials include:

• Structal Bridges (a division of Canam Inc.), Claremont, N.H., the structural steel;

• Northeast Prestressed Products, Cressona, Pa., the precast concrete beams;

• Oldcastle Precast, Rehoboth, Mass., the precast concrete deck panels;

• Cardi Corp., Warwick, R.I, all concrete and asphalt.

“It will be a beauty,” repeated Gadbois. “I’m just glad I lived long enough to see it.”

Motorists with questions can contact RIDOT’s Customer Service office at 401-222-2450 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Additional information will be available on RIDOT’s website ( and its social media sites on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Blogger. CEG

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