“There’s been a crash on the bridge.”
Those words chill us when we hear them at the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority. We pray for those involved, and we hope that all will be OK.
Most of the time, the victims go home with only minor injuries. Sadly, there are those who suffer more debilitating or even fatal wounds. Our hearts break at the news, and we harden our resolve to find a way to prevent future tragedies.
The bridge is an engineering marvel and a critical structure affecting the livelihood of Aquidneck Island and surrounding communities. Alterations to its structure – large and small alike – cannot and should not be made without careful study. When major design structures are being considered, which may cause many critical issues as they resolve others, due diligence is not only expected, it’s required.
The bridge was designed nearly half a century ago, and we know a lot more about bridge and steel integrity than we did then. We have contracts with two of the most respected engineering firms in the world that advise us on advancements in design, maintenance and safety. Among the hundreds of safety alterations we have considered has been the installation of a median barrier.
In 2005, RITBA’s board added funding to the 10-year plan for this project and ordered a feasibility study from one of those firms, Parsons Brinckerhoff. They recommended a plan of action that included:
• An investigation of the main support cable to see how the additional weight of a median would affect it;
• An aerodynamic study for the effects that a barrier would have within the suspended spans;
• And repairs to deteriorated steel that needed to be made in order to support the weight of a median.
From 2008 through 2012, RITBA completed each of these requirements including sandblasting, repairing and coating the steel substructure of the center span of the bridge. It is a mighty task when you consider that the work had to be done in variable weather conditions; without disruption to the roadway carrying 27,300 vehicles; at 200 feet above the water; and while simultaneously protecting the environment.
Nevertheless, we reached a milestone in December 2013 when Parsons reported that with the completion of all the recommended repairs, the Newport Pell Bridge will be in a condition to support a median barrier weighing several million pounds.
The next phase, as recommended by Parsons, was to conduct an analysis of the impact a barrier will have on vehicular usage. It’s logical to assume that with the addition of a physical barrier, head-on crashes will end, but the number of sideswipes will most likely increase. We know that those crashes, while they may be less severe, will still hurt people. Rollover crashes will potentially increase, as well as deflection crashes, which occur when a vehicle hits the barrier and rebounds off it into other vehicles and the bridge railing. No safety feature exists that we can install on the bridge to prevent all crashes and all injuries. If there were, we would look at it. For now, we await the report to clear the way for a permanent median barrier.
Once we have that in hand, we will then need to prepare a work plan, set a budget, put the work out to bid, choose a contractor, redesign the lanes, and pick a barrier that we hope will be the most effective. We will do all of this as quickly as we can.
In the meantime, we will install a temporary barrier down the centerline of the Pell Bridge. Made of sturdy plastic and covered with reflectors, the barrier’s presence alone should help drowsy or distracted drivers avoid crossing over the centerline.
Driving while texting or talking on cell phones is highly dangerous, yet the number of motorists who engage in this activity continues to grow. We will join the “It Can Wait” campaign sponsored by Rhode Island's attorney general, state police and Department of Transportation to help promote focused driving. Hopefully, with public education, people will adopt healthy practices and avoid becoming victims. Additionally, the state police have pledged to increase patrols on the Newport Pell Bridge starting immediately. All of their vehicles are equipped with mobile radar, and they will issue speeding violations to anyone who drives at excess speeds.
Together, all of these measures should have an impact on reducing the likelihood of crashes. And wherever you are on Rhode Island’s roads, please drive within the speed limits, wear your seatbelts, and stay alert. Everything else not related to focused driving can wait.
The author is the chairman of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s board of directors.