2011-03-17 / News

Newport Bridge gets a facelift for first time in two decades

By Ken Shane

For those out in East Ferry lately, it’s hard not to notice that the Newport Pell Bridge is being painted. Actually, the massive undertaking involves much more than painting. The painting, which is in fact a zinc coating, is secondary to the repair and maintenance of the steel structure of the bridge. The entire project will take approximately two years to complete.

“I want to be clear, it’s not a painting project,” said Darlington, who is the chairman of the board of directors for the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority. “As you can imagine, a steel bridge in salt water gets very rusty. We have redundancy in the beams, so it can withstand some rust, but eventually you have to replace the ones that are more rusted.”

“The coating helps keep the steel longer,” he added. “If you didn’t treat the metal, we’d be doing this a lot more frequently. We blast everything to determine where the weaknesses are in the steel, what needs to be replaced. We replace it, then we recoat the entire structure.”

Darlington reports that the cost of the project is $41 million for the bridge’s center span. When that section is complete, the east and west approaches will be tackled, but those contracts have not yet been put out for bid.

Darlington is quick to note that no taxpayer funds or other state funds are used for the project. “The RITBA doesn’t have any state workers,” he said. “There are no state tax dollars, there are no federal tax dollars. It’s all toll revenue.”

The main span of the Newport Bridge is 1,601 feet, making it the 70th longest suspension bridge in the world. It is also the longest suspension bridge in New England. The overall length of the bridge is 3,428 feet, and the bridge’s towers rise 400 feet above the water surface, while the roadway reaches 215 feet above the water at its highest point.

Since the RITBA only has a small maintenance staff, the work is being done by contractors. “All major construction done by the turnpike authority is contracted out. We have five maintenance employees at the authority, so we would not have the wherewithall to do a major project like this,” Darlington said.

Some 40 to 50 workers are involved in the project on a daily basis. Their work schedule calls for a six-day workweek when the weather improves. The authority considered five bids before awarding the contract. The bid process will be repeated for the other sections of the bridge.

According to Darlington, there are some environmental issues involved in the current project. “It’s not the coating, it’s the removal of the existing paint,” he said. “When the bridge was first built there was lead paint used. So even though the bridge has been blasted and repainted several times in its existence, it still requires a full environmental encasement of the work area.

“The area has to be put under a positive pressure so that nothing escapes out of the area where the work is going on. We put a wrap around it and put it under positive pressure. Every day when they finish the work they have to clean all the dust and the pellets that are used to sand the bridge out of there so if there was a storm that came up overnight, that stuff wouldn’t be there to dump over the side or get washed over the side. It’s very costly and labor intensive.”

A number of workdays were lost due to this winter’s severe weather. As a result, the bridge project, which began in the fall of 2010, is somewhat behind schedule. The contractors have given assurances to the RITBA that they will catch up in the next couple of months.

“They’ll add a shift, or they’ll work on Saturday,” Darlington said. “The contractor is committed to getting us back on schedule before too long.” Darlington expects the project to be complete some time in 2012.

The last time the Newport Bridge was painted was in the early 1990s. Darlington reports that no other repairs or renovations are planned as a part of the current project.

The bridge was finished in 1969 and cost $54 million to span the East Passage of Narragansett Bay and connect the town of Jamestown with the city of Newport. Although it was named for Sen. Claiborne Pell in 1992, local residents still refer to it as the Newport Bridge. It is the only toll facility in the United States to offer a residence discount that isn’t limited to local neighborhoods, and it is the only toll road in the state of Rhode Island.

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