Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series exploring the potential impact of the planned redesign/replacement of Providence's Route 6-10 connector.
Although more than a dozen Rhode Island bridges have a worse safety rating, the Huntington Viaduct bridge in Providence holds a special place in the thinking of transportation planners, government leaders and alternate-transportation activists.
Visually, it's one of the more stark examples of the deterioration of Rhode Island's transportation infrastructure.
It was here, in 2015, that the R.I. Department of Transportation and Gov. Gina M. Raimondo set their joint announcement that the state would seek General Assembly authority for highway tolls to help finance bridge repairs. They stood underneath a set of temporary steel braces, angled to shore up a set of concrete and steel piers that support the road.
This was an image that many in Rhode Island wanted to move past. But to what, exactly?
For commuters, the bridge and the larger Route 6-10 connector are an essential link to downtown Providence. It is one of three arteries connecting communities south and west of Providence to the capital.
For many city residents, the connector, a series of nine bridges and elevated roads that curve through the west side of the city to downtown, has had a more lasting impact. Because it physically divides many city neighborhoods, critics say it has cut off economic development and access to some of the city's poorest communities.
So when Raimondo on Sept. 7 called a press conference and announced that she had directed DOT to initiate an immediate replacement of the Huntington bridge based on a series of inspection reports and professional recommendations that indicated its condition was worsening, many transportation and neighborhood advocates were taken aback.
A city-organized process to redesign the 6-10 connector had been underway for several months, without a clear consensus among the various parties on a redesign. Now Raimondo was saying time had about run out, leaving supporters of a redesign of the 6-10 connector to reconnect those struggling neighborhoods unsure where to turn.
Seth Zeren, a spokesman for Fix the 6-10 Coalition, a 20-member coalition of businesses and organizations that want more engagement in the redesign process, is skeptical that the safety concerns rise to the level of an immediate replacement.
Among other things, the group has asked for a peer review of the bridge inspection reports by a structural engineer.
"We're not sure whether we can credit the level of emergency on the state's behalf," he said. "If it's super-dangerous, why aren't they restricting traffic? You can still drive a fully loaded cement truck on it. If it's really that dangerous, you could at least put a weight limit on it."
Raimondo told Providence Business News she felt compelled to act quickly, citing reports that indicated continuing deterioration of the basic bridge elements.
"I can't take six months to think about it," she said. "I had to take action to keep people safe. This isn't theoretical. This is a bridge."
But advocates for alternate designs say the state is facing a decision that could have impacts on generations, and should consider the long-term ramifications of a corridor replacement.
"I don't think it was an overreaction to be highly concerned about public safety," said Scott Wolf, director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, which has advocated for transportation alternatives. "But I think it was an overreaction to say that concern about public safety precluded anything other than an in-kind replacement of the corridor."
On Oct. 3, almost a month after Raimondo's announcement, Providence released its own version of what the 6-10 connector could become.
Developed by the city's planning department, the proposal would reduce the width of the connector and reclaim 55 acres of land along its path for new development. Among its changes, it would add an elevated rotary, called a "halo," at the juncture of routes 6 and 10, potentially easing congestion in Olneyville Square.
The halo feature would take the place of the traffic movement now handled by the Huntington viaduct bridge, but because it would be located some 200 feet south of that bridge, would not require full replacement of the viaduct bridge if the state were to pursue the city's design. The idea presented by the city is this would be an alternative to rebuilding that bridge.
Most importantly, the entire 6-10 connector would become a parkway, a less intrusive option than an elevated highway. It would increase the number of access points into Providence neighborhoods, but not require stop lights.
The proposal is now before DOT. Its spokesman said the agency would need to review and evaluate it before offering comment as to whether it could work.
Raimondo is also evaluating the city's proposal. But the timeline she set before the city's plan was unveiled remains in place, with a design-build RFP going out in December.
"We are open to modifications that do not put the public at unnecessary risk and that work within the available budget," said Raimondo spokesman David Ortiz, referring to the $400 million budgeted by the state.
IS IT SAFE?
The Huntington viaduct, as it is often called, was built in 1951 and had its first, and last, significant rehab in 1978. It carries U.S. 6 over Westminster and Troy streets in Providence, and over the Amtrak line.
The reports and recommendations that Raimondo said informed her decision to move ahead on a replacement for it include a series of independent inspection reports, as well as documents that describe the status of the bridge.
Although Raimondo cited safety concerns repeatedly, the bridge is not, nor has it been, limited or restricted as to its load, a term for the weight it can support. The Huntington bridge has a legal truck load up to 40 tons, according to the DOT chief engineer, Dave Fish.
The bridge is not posted for weight restrictions because the state has taken steps to erect steel shoring braces to help buttress a section of "pier" system that is experiencing decay, per a Jan. 26 note attached to its load-rating report.
In bridge design, the piers are the vertical legs, anchored below ground into footings. Constructed of steel and reinforced with concrete, the piers are connected by horizontal sections, called pier caps, and form the base of a two-section support system for the travel surface. The interconnected piers form the substructure of a bridge span, which in turn supports the weight of the superstructure, the system of linear beams or girders that hold up the travel deck.
On the Huntington bridge, reports provided by DOT show a pattern of deterioration at key points.
Because much of the Huntington bridge is made of reinforced concrete – which is concrete over steel-reinforcement bars – inspectors in reports say its deterioration is evidenced by crumbling concrete, sections of exposed reinforcement rods and signs of visible rusting or erosion, or a hollow sound that indicates interior decay when an inspector bangs against a section of concrete.
On June 15, six months after the regular inspection concluded, an inspector with Commonwealth Engineers & Consultants Inc., a DOT contractor, inspected the Huntington viaduct as part of its next scheduled inspection. He issued a "critical finding" report that described, in blunt terms, temporary steel shoring columns that had deteriorated at the ground line to a point where they could be moved by hand.
Three other steel columns, also installed as temporary supports, had had significant deterioration as well. The inspector reported in areas they were at "100 percent loss, and deterioration to paper-thin remaining section."
In addition to the decay at ground level, the steel columns did not appear to be securely connected to the steel plate above them, he found. "They are only interconnected by grounding wires at the top of the columns. The southeast column is at immediate risk of severing at its base and falling onto the adjacent tracks. The other three columns may be in the same situation in the near future."
What the inspector found represented an immediate safety threat, not to the travelers on the bridge, but to riders on Amtrak trains, according to DOT officials. The steel columns, if they toppled over, could have crossed the rail line.
Once the inspector issued his report, the DOT installed new shoring columns, replacing the rusted older ones.
Did the deterioration mean the superstructure, which supports the riding deck, was in imminent danger of collapse? No. Because the pier cap the shoring towers supported is just one of 38 spans in the bridge, according to Fish.
"This is not about bridges falling down," said Charles St. Martin, a spokesman for DOT. "This bridge is not falling down. People should not feel it is unsafe. … We inspect these things to the fine details."
The last full inspection report of the Huntington Avenue viaduct, issued in December 2015, had determined the bridge had a sufficiency rating – a measure of structural capacity and service – of 19 out of a possible 100.
Its travel deck and superstructure were graded as being of "poor" condition, while the substructure was rated as the somewhat less severe "serious."
Overall, the bridge is in poor condition, its ratings unchanged from its last inspection, conducted over a series of dates in November and December 2014, per the December 2015 report. Because the bridge is listed on the National Bridge Inventory as structurally deficient, inspections are conducted annually.
In all, seven of the nine bridges on the span were listed as structurally deficient in the national bridge inventory. As part of her action, Raimondo in September ordered that all the bridges in the 6-10 connector would have quarterly inspections.
In a telephone interview prior to the unveiling of Providence's proposal, DOT Director Peter Alviti Jr. said he recommended the governor move immediately to take action on the bridge because the problems reported by inspectors were part of a trend in accelerating deterioration.
Although the critical finding report issued for the Huntington bridge in June was the only one that bridge had this year, it was the fifth such report issued along the connector's bridges in the last 10 months. In the prior year, there was none.
Alviti cited the pattern of increasing frequency for critical findings as evidence that deterioration of the 6-10 had become more rapid, which in turn became part of his rationale for requesting the governor to take immediate action on a replacement.
The time pressure is significant, said Alviti.
Some of the redesigns proposed by transportation and community advocates could add years to the process of rebuilding the connector, he said, and are unrealistic. "This is not the Champs-Elysees [in Paris]," he said.
Even with an immediate call for proposals, the process of reconstruction itself will take years, he noted.
"There are literally dozens of different opinions on how this should be rebuilt," he said. "Some, beyond time and budget, would impact traffic. All would have a potential impact on budget and time."
FEDS WEIGH IN
The four earlier critical finding reports were issued between Dec. 9, 2015, and May 19, and cited problems with the Plainfield Street bridge, the Westminster Street bridge, where it crosses Route 6, the Westminster Street bridge where it crosses Route 10, and the Hartford Avenue East bridge, which crosses Hartford Avenue.
Each then necessitated an emergency repair.
After Alviti received the fifth critical finding report on the 6-10 connector, the one affecting the Huntington Avenue bridge, he said he invited a Federal Highway Administration official to Providence for a site visit.
He and Carlos C. Machado, division administrator for the FHA, walked the bridge together, Alviti said. The discussion wasn't a new topic, Alviti said, as the state and federal officials have been in regular communications about the poor status of Rhode Island's bridges.
By that time, Rhode Island had learned that its application for federal funds to help improve the 6-10 connector had been rejected. He wanted to get Machado's opinion.
"What's the next step that we take?" he said.
During the visit, while assessing the bridge, Machado expressed concerns about its state of disrepair, Alviti said. Not to the extent that it should be closed, Alviti said, but serious concerns that it had been repaired, and re-repaired, for years.
Alviti said he asked him to put his thoughts into writing.
The letter, dated Aug. 15, was directed to Alviti. Machado wrote that he was "concerned with the level of deterioration of the Huntington Avenue Viaduct Bridge. We are soliciting that you provide us with the current anticipated schedule for rehabilitation or replacement" of the bridge.
"Based on our field observations, review of available inspection and load rating reports, and the high volume of traffic this structure carries, our technical opinion is that this bridge should receive a high priority for rehabilitation or replacement in your current bridge program, to avoid further deterioration and significant use restrictions or closure."
Machado cited the December 2015 inspection, which found the bridge was structurally deficient and had a sufficiency rating of 19 out of 100, as well as specific problems, including heavy deterioration of the beam ends, and visible vibration.
The supplemental shoring is sustaining the bridge, but it is intended to be a temporary fix, he noted.
"The temporary shoring is not designed nor intended to restore the capacity of a structure for an extended period of time," he wrote.
Two weeks later, Alviti wrote a letter to Raimondo, expressing an "urgent recommendation to immediately pursue an in-kind replacement of the structurally deficient bridges of the 6/10 interchange using the $400 million in funding made available under the RhodeWorks legislation."
He noted that Machado had told him that the bridges of the 6-10 connector are the worst in Rhode Island, and that an in-kind replacement of them "would qualify as a ‘Categorical Exclusion' under federal environmental rules and regulations," allowing the state to expedite the reconstruction.
The replacement will bring the bridges to a state of good repair, and ensure continued public safety, Alviti wrote, which is "the primary mission of the Department of Transportation."
In the press conference announcing her decision to fast-track a replacement, Raimondo had assembled the mayors of suburbs, including Warwick, North Providence and Johnston, that rely on the 6-10 connector as an access to Providence.
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza spoke in sober tones, explaining he had just been made aware of the state of the Huntington bridge.
He emphasized there was more to the 6-10 connector than a single bridge, and said he would work with the state to enhance the "6-10 corridor as a whole."
"DOT, the city and the community all have articulated a larger goal for this project, including enhanced mobility options," he said.
In an interview a few weeks later, on the eve of the announcement of the city's design proposal, Elorza said the governor and DOT had set the parameters, in terms of timing, and it was the job of the city to meet them.
Elorza grew up in the area, and commutes by bicycle to work past the Huntington bridge. He has a street-level view of what the connector has done to his neighborhood.
He accepts the governor's decision that something needs to happen soon – at least to one of the bridges in the span. But the challenge is larger than one bridge, he noted.
"I understand that one has to be fixed. But this entire project, it spans seven bridges that are functionally in disrepair," Elorza said. "With respect to those other bridges, there is still a lot of opportunity to craft a solution that accomplishes all of our goals."
Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, whose community is among those that make daily use of the connector, said he has spoken to Elorza several times about what the city wants in a redesigned connector. Raimondo, he said, took decisive action. Whether the state can incorporate some of what the city has proposed, he said, is up to the state to determine.
"What I've been told thus far is that the bridge is in much worse shape than originally thought, and that action needed to be taken. Whether or not the alternative suggested by Providence, which the governor is now considering, could make some of that into a different, more innovative plan, I don't know."
Wolf, who with a small group of transportation advocates met with Raimondo after the city disclosed its plans, said he is hopeful a compromise can be reached.
"Part of the pitch was we, at Grow Smart Rhode Island anyway, don't feel that adhering to the highest standards of public safety and doing something innovative are mutually exclusive," he said. "We can address both of these important objectives. And if some temporary, immediate repairs need to be made to this particularly deficient bridge, then so be it." •