2014-01-23 / News

First step to improve safety on Newport Bridge underway

Yellow reflective dividers to be placed 20 feet apart
By Margo Sullivan

Work on the Newport Bridge started Tuesday to install reflective delineators. The dividers are expected to deter drivers from crossing into oncoming traffic. 
Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten Work on the Newport Bridge started Tuesday to install reflective delineators. The dividers are expected to deter drivers from crossing into oncoming traffic. Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten On Tuesday, one day in advance of another big snowstorm, construction workers were out drilling holes to prepare the center lane of the Newport Pell Bridge for the installation of bright yellow lane delineators.

The lane delineators, which are intended to warn distracted drivers they are about to cross the median, should be installed on the bridge in two weeks, David Darlington said at a Jan. 16 press conference. They will not prevent drivers from crossing into oncoming traffic, he added. They should alert motorists, however, who are falling asleep at the wheel or have become distracted because running over the delineator will cause a bump and the paddles will hit the car.

“The purpose of this is to alert drivers where the center lane of the bridge is,” said Darlington, chairman of the bridge authority’s board of directors.

The bridge authority has purchased about 520 of the yellow paddles, which will be placed 20 feet apart.

Traveling at the 40 mph speed limit, motorists should pass three lane delineators per second, and the visual effect will be a continuous line. The cost is $70,000 for the delineators, plus installation. He did not have a total cost because the authority is trying to perform the installation with in-house labor.

Darlington and the bridge authority called the press conference to show the lane delineators and announce the agency will introduce them among four new safety initiatives on the span. These are intermediate measures to help reduce crashes while engineers wrap up a study analyzing the traffic impacts of concrete median barriers. The authority ultimately may decide to install hard barriers on the center lane, but wants to assess the dangers of violent sideswipe accidents.

The other intermediate measures call for:

• Stepped-up law enforcement to stop speeding and distracted driving. The authority plans to install speed cameras on the bridge, he said. Initially, the police will send warnings, but ultimately, the state may opt to use the cameras to ticket violators.

• A public awareness campaign to warn drivers not to text while driving. Expect more signs on the bridge about texting, and public service announcements through the media.

• A better intersection on the Newport side to keep motorists who mean to stay in Newport from accidentally driving onto the bridge ramp. Numerous accidents are caused by people trying to turn around and exit when they are already on the bridge, Darlington said. The state Department of Transportation owns that road section and will work with city officials and the bridge authority to fix the problem.

“For the turnpike and bridge authority, safety is always our number one priority,” Darlington said. “It always has been and always will be.”

Jamestowner Kenneth Prior and Warwick resident Kathy Meunier were killed in October 2011 following a head-on collision when a Middletown teen crossed into the opposite lane and slammed into Meunier’s car head-on. One other person, Elijah Swift, of Exeter, has been killed since then on the Newport Bridge in a similar accident when he crossed into the opposite lane on Christmas Eve 2013.

Meunier’s husband attended the press conference along with several officials, including state Rep. Deb Ruggiero, of Jamestown. Also present were Director Michael Lewis of the state Department of Transportation, RIBTA Executive Director Buddy Croft, and Lt. Col. Michael Winquist of the state police.

Lewis said the bridge was designed 45 years ago when road conditions in Newport and Jamestown were different.

“If this bridge were designed today, it would be a divided highway, just as the Jamestown Bridge and Sakonnet are,” he said.

Winquist said the state police support safety efforts on the bridges.

“We do not want to handle any more fatal accidents,” he said.

Police have issued 909 citations on the Jamestown and Newport bridges over the past three years, he said, although motorists do speed because there’s no breakdown lane on the bridge where police can pull drivers over.

After the press conference, David Prior, whose brother Kenneth died in a head-on collision, said the bridge authority should not delay installing median barriers. Prior said the work could be completed in five months.

However, Darlington said a final traffic study must be completed first, and that study is underway now and scheduled to be done by March. That study’s needed so the board can assess the consequences of violent accidents caused by drivers slamming into the barrier, similar to what would have happened if a median barrier had stopped the car that hit Prior and Meunier.

“We still have to have that data,” he said.

Moreover, the engineers have agreed the bridge can withstand the weight of median barriers, but only after structural improvements have been made. The improvements call for removing rusted and rotted steel supports under the span and replacing them. The bridge authority has already started that project, he said. The crews have been working four years, and although the end date is not until 2015, the median barriers could be installed as soon as the end of 2014 because one side of the bridge is not affected by the structural problems.

Asked if the state might not ever install concrete barriers, Darlington said he believes the barriers will be installed. However, that will be the board’s decision, not his, he said. There are problems with median barriers, Darlington added, such as difficulty reaching injured people in an accident.

Engineers and the bridge authority, however, will come up with ways to work around the difficulties, he said.

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