2015-03-12 / Front Page

Pell Bridge Median Job to Begin

By Tom Walsh

Spurred by a double fatality in 2011 and another crash that seriously injured two people on Christmas Eve, 2013, work on the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority’s (RITBA) long-anticipated concrete median barrier on the Newport Pell Bridge is scheduled to begin on Monday, March 16.

“Safety was our top priority” in selecting a median barrier system, said Eric Offenberg, director of engineering at RITBA. “We want to prevent head-on collisions.”

RITBA expects work to be done by mid-May. There will be periodic lane closures, the agency warned.

As a result of installing 3,750 18-inch-thick barrier segments over the length of the bridge, outside travel lanes on the span will shrink in width from 12 feet to 11 feet, six inches. The width of inside lanes will be diminished from 12 feet to 10 feet, six inches.

Offenberg said narrower lanes will not diminish safety. “The current 12-foot lanes are very wide for bridges such as this,” he said. For example, Offenberg said, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has nine-foot travel lanes. He also said that studies have shown that narrower travel lanes tend to prompt motorists to drive more slowly.

“The speed limit on our bridge is 40 miles an hour, not 65 miles an hour,” Offenberg said.

The start of actual construction of the median barrier, as well as roadway and guardrail work on both the east and west sides of the span, was delayed for four years while RITBA conducted necessary studies, including the structural integrity of the bridge and its ability to withstand 5.3 million pounds of barrier weight.

Each barrier segment weighs 1,500 pounds. In addition to being 18 inches wide, barrier segments are 32 inches high and 39 inches long, according to RITBA. Barrier segments can be moved to accommodate changes needed for traffic flow, although Offenberg said that is unlikely to occur.

The cost of structural work to strengthen the bridge prior to installing the median was $85 million in steel repairs and painting and another $5 million in engineering work, RITBA said. Aetna Bridge Company of Warwick, with extensive bridge work experience, will install the median under a $5.9 million contract awarded by RITBA in November.

RITBA officials enthusiastically promoted the new barrier’s “first in the nation dyed concrete” segments. This means that the barrier's “Newport Blue” paint, matching the rest of the span's color scheme, will be the same color inside and out, rather than painted just on the surface.

“Safety was our top consideration, of course,” Offenberg said. “But aesthetics were second.” He added that dyed concrete barriers will be less expensive to maintain over time.

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