2013-12-26 / News

Report says bridge can support barrier

By Margo Sullivan

State officials soon expect to wind down their seven-year study of the pros and cons of a median barrier on the Newport Pell Bridge, according to David Darlington, chairman of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

By March, the engineers should be able to provide all the answers needed to make a final decision about installing the barriers, he said.

Jamestown attorney John Murphy filed a lawsuit in October against the bridge authority on behalf of the Prior and Meunier families. Jamestown resident Kenneth Prior and his friend Kathy Meunier, of Warwick, were killed on the bridge in an October 2011 collision. Meunier was driving Prior home from work when her car was struck by a vehicle that crossed into her lane. She died on the scene. Prior was airlifted to Rhode Island Hospital but did not survive his injuries.

During the accident investigation, police found evidence the other driver may have been texting and traveling at an estimated speed of 62 mph at the time he slammed his car into Meunier’s.

“Our litigation on behalf of the Prior and Meunier families is about to be resolved because we have accomplished our objective,” Murphy said. “The median barrier is going to be installed, and antispeeding and anti-distracted driving laws will be enforced on the bridge.”

Darlington said the bridge authority has agreed to press the state General Assembly to change the law to allow traffic enforcement on the span. David Prior, Kenneth’s brother, accepted the authority’s invitation to help it persuade the lawmakers, he said.

Prior said he is staying off any committees but wants to act as a “watch dog” to ensure the barriers are installed and the traffic rules are enforced.

Installing speed cameras would be a big part of the solution, Darlington said. Currently, the bridge has numerous surveillance cameras mounted on the tower, but speed cameras are illegal. If the law were to change to allow the speed cameras, the bridge authority would post signs warning motorists, he said.

Otherwise, the enforcement options are limited. “We have no ability to get a cruiser on the bridge,” Darlington said.

There’s no breakdown lane for police to pull drivers over, but occasionally cruisers are positioned at the toll plaza. That’s not the best option, however, because most drivers are slowing down at that point anyway.

The speed limit on the bridge is 40 mph. Most drivers go faster, and the speed needs to be reduced for safety, Darlington said. If median barriers are installed, the lanes will have to be narrowed and speed will become a bigger factor in safety.

According to Darlington, the authority has been studying the issue since 2006. He says the reason the decision has taken so long is because the engineering questions are complicated.

The big question is: Can the bridge handle the weight of adding median barriers and absorb the stresses that would result during high winds?

One recently completed study required building a bridge model and placing the model inside a wind tunnel. The authority got the results last week. The engineers, Parsons Brinckerhoff, indicated the barriers would actually help stabilize the bridge and recommended three types of barriers for the span.

The next phase is to look at what happens if a car slams into the barrier, Darlington said. The expectation is the car will veer to the right. But at a high speed, could the impact send the vehicle all the way back into the rail?

Darlington anticipates the barriers would increase the number of “sideswipe” accidents but protect travelers from head-on collisions, which are more violent.

However, he asked, if the barriers go in, how will authorities clear an accident on the bridge? Other questions deal with snow removal and whether narrowing the lane by 6 inches will increase the number of accidents.

The bridge authority hired consulting firm CDM Smith to analyze the questions, along with “potential mitigations” and the cost impacts. According to Darlington, the board will make the decision based on safety, not costs.

“We want the engineers to direct us,” he said.

Darlington expects the board’s decision could come in the summer, and the authority would need another year to make the recommended repairs prior to installing any medians.

Darlington said that means the medians will not be installed before 2015.

Prior said he is not “100 percent” sure a barrier will be installed, but he does feel hopeful progress is being made.

His brother thought the bridge was dangerous and said he was fearful on the rides back and forth to work. Prior is working for the safety improvements so another family will not have to deal with a similar loss, he said.

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