PAWTUCKET — How much more wear and tear can the century-old Division Street Bridge take from the I-95 truck detours before costly repairs have to be made? That is the million dollar question that City Councilors were asking this week following a state inspection report that listed the bridge as being in “fair” condition.
Pawtucket's involuntary role in the state's massive replacement project of the I-95 Pawtucket River Bridge has been a topic of much angry discussion dating back to the fall of 2007, when the bridge span that carries the northbound and southbound lanes of I-95 was found to be structurally unsound. In November of that year, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation imposed a detour and an 18-ton weight restriction for tractor trailers. Drivers were notified they would be diverted over the Division Street Bridge or could use Route 295 or 146 as alternate routes.
While the replacement project is now underway, the tracker trailers are still being re-routed over the Division Street Bridge and this scenario will remain for at least another year. The fact that the City Councilors only recently received a report about an inspection that took place in May of 2010 has raised concerns once again and further rankled those that have been lobbying the state for financial aid on Pawtucket's behalf.
At Wednesday's City Council meeting, Councilor Albert Vitali noted that the Division Street Bridge continues to take a pounding from the tractor trailers as well as the vibrations from pile driving and other heavy construction work going on nearby as part of the I-95 project.
He expressed concerns about the impact this is having on the bridge, especially since the last inspection that labeled it as being in fair shape was done over a year ago and the truck traffic will continue for another year.
Vitali cited estimates included in the RIDOT report that put the cost of replacing the historic Division Street Bridge, which is under the city's jurisdiction, as being between $6 and $9 million, and said that Pawtucket taxpayers should not be left with having to pay this tab.
Vitali has long been pressuring state officials to allow Pawtucket to share in the millions of dollars of revenue from fines that have been collected from trucking companies for detour violations. He also expressed disappointment in the local legislators, saying he didn't think they had done enough to get state aid for the city. On Wednesday, he stepped up the call for city officials to obtain a firm commitment from the state that it will pay for any repairs or replacement of the city bridge.
City Councilor John Barry, who represents District 4, concurred with the concerns raised about the historic span and its continued use as a detour for the tractor trailer trucks. “That bridge was not built for an automobile, much less 16-wheelers,” noted Barry. He requested, and the council agreed, that a letter be sent to RIDOT requesting that the council receive a report on the condition of the Division Street Bridge every six months while the I-95 bridge project is underway. The council is also requesting a written commitment from RIDOT about making repairs to the Division Street Bridge once the detour has ended.
City Councilor Christopher O'Neill and City Council President David Moran also expressed frustration about the lack of attention being paid to Pawtucket by RIDOT and agreed that the members of the local legislative delegation should be pushing harder on this matter. Moran added that while he sees the importance of having a cooperative relationship between the city and RIDOT on the I-95 Pawtucket River Bridge replacement project, he nevertheless believes it may turn adversarial if RIDOT continues to ignore the city's requests. “Everything seems to fall on deaf ears,” he stated.
According to RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin, the Division Street Bridge is inspected every two years, as are all of the state's bridges. When told of the concerns of Pawtucket city officials about the continued use of the 100-year-old span, he said that with the bridge's arch design and stone construction, it is considered to be in overall good condition and able to safely withstand the additional weight and truck traffic.
St. Martin also said that the first phase of the construction work on the northbound side of the Pawtucket River Bridge, which involves the Division Street Bridge detour, is expected to be completed well within a year. Having this new section in place will allow for the weight limit and detour to be removed on northbound I-95 only, which will greatly cut down on the traffic using the Division Street Bridge.
According to the State Police, to date, a total of $9.3 million in violations has been issued to tractor trailer truck drivers caught using the I-95 Pawtucket River Bridge since the weight and axle restrictions went into effect in 2007.
According to recent data, the State Police have stopped a total of 24,299 trucks suspected to be in violation of the bridge restrictions since 2007. Of those stopped, 843 have been weighed and 706 have been cited for being in violation of the 18-ton limit.
The most frequent violation has been for ignoring the posted bridge signs. Of the total amount of trucks pulled over, 16,033 were cited for “obedience to devices” and 1,966 were cited for violation of the axle limit (the posted limits allow no more than 2-axles per unit and no 3-axle vehicles, which includes most standard tractor trailers).
Attempts to obtain data from state officials on how much of the bridge fine money has been collected to date from the trucking companies were unsuccessful on Friday.