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City Council mulls lawsuit over bridge

January 12, 2012

PAWTUCKET — Once heralded as the city's “bridge to prosperity,” the new I-95 Pawtucket River Bridge is turning out to be anything but. Citing a litany of frustrations and concerns related to the $81 million highway project, the City Council voted 7 to 0 on Wednesday to explore taking legal action against either the state or the federal government as a way of recouping financial losses to Pawtucket.
City Councilor Albert Vitali led the charge, saying that a Dec. 9 communication to the council from Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis was “the same run-around and open-ended answers” to the council's repeated requests for written assurances that the Division Street Bridge and nearby roads used in the detours around the I-95 bridge project will be repaired without cost to Pawtucket taxpayers.
“It's time to do something drastic and dramatic,” fumed Vitali. He proposed, and the rest of the council agreed, that City Solicitor Frank Milos be asked to look into the best legal method for the city to obtain funding for local road and bridge repairs, whether by suing RIDOT or the state for a portion of the bridge fine money or the Federal Highway Administration for a straight payment. Federal dollars are funding 80 percent of the bridge project and the rest is through the state.
The council also supports an earlier suggestion by Councilor John Barry that a letter be sent to Richard Licht, the director of administration for Gov. Lincoln
Chafee, outlining the council's frustrations about the bridge work and the way that RIDOT officials have responded, and requesting a coordinated meeting on the issue. Councilor James Chadwick agreed, saying that if Lewis isn't providing the city with answers, his boss, who is the governor, should be made aware. The council agreed to have both the governor and the Federal Highway Administration be copied on the letter.
Vitali said that city DPW Supt. Lance Hill estimated that over $400,000 would be needed to repair damage that he has so far observed to local detour roads. He also said that various construction workers have pointed out damage that has been done to the Division Street Bridge, which is being used to divert the tractor trailers from the I-95 span. He said he was given a previous estimate of $6 million to replace the historic bridge, and is concerned about the continued wear and tear from trucks.
Councilor Christopher O'Neill noted that the state has agreed it is responsible for the Division Street Bridge since it is being used for the I-95 detour. However, he noted that if the bridge's condition deteriorates further and has to be shut down, “that would be the final straw” for the businesses that are already struggling in that part of the city.
Councilor Thomas Hodge criticized RIDOT for not making the council aware of the latest setback with a misalignment on the new bridge span. He also noted that Pawtucket “hasn't gotten one penny from the bridge fines” being collected by the state and said this funding would go far in helping the city repair its damaged local roads.
Also, the council tabled two resolutions related to the bridge reconstruction project, due to both of them slated to be re-worked. One resolution having to do with the creation of a fund to provide relief to businesses incurring hardship because of the detours is being re-written to include a specific monetary request of $100,000 from the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and other potential grant sources. The other asking RIDOT for a structural study of the Division Street Bridge and to make necessary repairs has also been delayed for updating and revision.
In other matters, the council approved a resolution authorizing that an application be filed with the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation to re-designate the city's “enterprise zone” that has been in effect for the past five years. The enterprise zone offers a tax incentive for businesses located within certain parts of the city to create more jobs.

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