2007-12-13 / Front Page

$223 million needed to keep bridges healthy

Bridge Authority to hold public hearings on funding 20-year plan
By Dotti Farrington

Consultants to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) recommended on Wednesday a $350 million capital repair plan over 20 years for the Clairborne Pell Bridge between Jamestown and Newport and the Mount Hope Bridge between Portsmouth and Bristol.

The consultants said the plan represents a shortfall of $223 million that probably would be obtained through higher tolls on the Newport Bridge and a possible return to tolls on the Mount Hope Bridge.

RITBA took no action on the plan, pending its review of the data and its intent to conduct several public forums on the report and its impacts.

David Darlington, RITBA chairman, said a committee will meet tomorrow, Dec. 14, to discuss dates and locations for the forums. "We want to know what the public thinks, and especially if they see any options for cost savings or financing that the consultants and the board have not identified," he said.

Darlington also said he expects the forums to start in January, and be continued at as many dates and locations that are required to give the public adequate opportunity to comment.

Meeting at the Jamestown Library on Wednesday morning, the RITBA board heard a presentation by the consultants, PB (Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas, Inc.) of New York City, and its financial partner, PBConsult of Washington, D.C. The consultants said the recommendations represent what must be done, starting in the current fiscal year, to prevent deterioration to the bridge that would result in even higher costs if postponed indefinitely.

The bridge-work total does not reflect the annual operating costs of about $13 million a year for the two bridges. The plan by PB is summarized in 70 pages of narratives and graphics, backed up by hundreds of pages of evaluations made to develop the plan.

State Representative Bruce Long (R-Jamestown, Middletown) said he believes the current toll structure is a bargain. He nonetheless urged RITBA to consider special toll provisions especiallyfor Jamestown residents. He also proposed that the plan be provided online. Darlington said putting the plan on the Internet would be considered.

Debra Moolin Taylor, supervising structural engineer for PB, who has been chief technical advisor for RITBA since 1994, presented the engineering data for the 20 years of work needed. PB designed the Newport Bridge, built 38 years ago. PB financial expert Matthew Bieschke explained the money considerations that went into development of the plan.

In response to a question by the RITBA board, Bieschke said that the $2 cash toll, in effect since opening of the bridge, represented $12 per trip if it had been adjusted for inflation over the years.

Moolin Taylor and Bieschke emphasized that RITBA's handling of on-going operations and maintenance has been superior and allowed little room for funding options other than restructuring toll income to cover the long-term bridge costs. Their presentations on Wednesday did not include details of work needing to be done, other than reference to a report some months ago that painting of the Newport Bridge would cost about $80 million.

At the request of authority members, Moolin Taylor explained the need to construct scaffolding and related access devices for painters to reach all portions of the bridge; and the involved techniques because of environmental considerations needed to contain dust from sandblasting the old paint and the mist from applying new paint. She also detailed the sealing properties of the paint to protect the bridge structure because the paint was not simply an aesthetic consideration.

The PB presenters noted that the 20-year costs will be divided between the two bridges. Approximately 75 percent for the Newport Bridge and about 25 percent for the 78-year-old Mount Hope Bridge for which many major repairs have been recently completed. It also was noted that Newport Bridge is a four lane, 11,248-foot structure and the Mount Hope Bridge is a two-lane, 4,858-foot span.

Moolin Taylor explained that the RITBA and PB policy over the years has been to make needed repairs in relationship to available funds, but the condition of the bridge is reaching the point where some work can no longer be deferred. She specified the need for more extensive deck repairs than have been made in the past.

At no point in the presentation were safety issues raised, but the engineer said matters would become critical because of "points of diminishing returns for some work to be further deferred."

She also responded to a question by RITBA Vice Chairman Richard Eannarino of Jamestown that doing "nothing more" in the next decade or two would result in "deterioration beyond the service life, accelerated corrosion, and greater expense to provide for the structural integrity" of the bridges.

Jamestown Councilman Michael White asked about implications of electronic toll collection, such as EZPass, for increasing use of the Newport Bridge, and the volume possibly offsetting some of the added costs.

Darlington said the authority is in the process of reviewing data that might enable valid projections about such a factor. He and other bridge officials noted that the traffic volume has remained constant over the last four to five years.

Eannarino commented that the authority needs to "do want is right, and not necessarily politically advantageous" in deciding how to fund the upkeep of the bridges.

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