2017-07-06 / Front Page

Slow Season Start Due to Weather

By Brooke Constance White

Although traffic over the Newport bridge has certainly played a role in the region’s tourism industry this season, local stakeholders agree that the biggest variable has been the weather.

Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport, said the rain and clouds in late May and June was far more impactful to the area than traffic from the Newport Bridge deck repair project. From his vantage point, any decline in tourism should not be attributed to the bridge, since the worst traffic occurred from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., heading into Newport and from 3 to 6 p.m. heading out of town on weekdays. Most visitors don’t come to Newport until after 9:30 a.m., unless attending a special event.

“Bad weather can be so detrimental to our business,” he said. “We looked at flat numbers or some decline in May, but I would definitely attribute that to the weather.”

Smith said the perception of traffic and the generalization that there was always a delay in crossing over the bridge, when really it was localized to specific hours, was an issue they had to address. Discover Newport worked hard to educate people on the specific hours that were problematic, he said.

“Obviously, commuter hours were tough. I’m not trying to diminish that. But with everyone talking about bridge traffic, someone thinking about coming to Newport midday might not have because of all the postings on social media about the traffic,” Smith said. “There was this perception that the bridge was horrible 24/7, and that was starting to percolate into the marketplace, so we had to do some damage control and make sure visitors and locals alike were aware that it was only problematic at certain times.”

Ninety percent of the tourism’s success is directly related to the weather, he said. Good weather is crucial to a successful season.

“I can’t remember a May where we had worse weather than this year,” Smith said. “We’ve had a slow start because of the weather, but we’re in full swing now and are thrilled that the weather seems to have improved. Hoping for lots more days of sunshine and less rain.”

A number of employers told their staff not to cross the bridge until after 9 a.m. when traffic had subsided, or tried to stagger their shift-starts. The location being worked on was a particularly difficult one, as it was one of the narrowest on the bridge, making it difficult to merge and causing most of the backups. When the work begins again on a different spot on the bridge, hopefully the delays will decrease, Smith said.

“Will there be delays? Absolutely. But it may not be as difficult to manage,” he said. “I’m always the optimist and I stay in touch with the bridge and turnpike authority. It was a tough spot to work, but all the feedback and data will hopefully help manage the situation when work begins again in September.”

Buddy Croft, executive director of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, agreed with Smith, saying that while traffic over the bridge was down slightly this year compared to last year, the dip is directly correlated to weather.

As for the traffic that commuters encountered in the mornings and at night for the past six weeks, Eric Offenberg, director of engineering for the Bridge Authority, said that the data they collected will help determine the traffic patterns that will work best in September.

“We tried different traffic patterns and worked with Newport Police and state police to figure out different traffic set-ups. In every project we do, we take lessons from it and the best management approach,” he said. “We’ll implement those things we learned in the fall. We debriefed with Newport Police and with a couple of private property owners whose businesses were affected, and we’re going to take all this data and feedback and use it as we move forward.”

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