2017-11-09 / Front Page

Pell Bridge Work Winding Down

By Brooke Constance White

The second round of the project to replace the Pell Bridge deck is complete and workers are currently clearing lanes so that normal traffic patterns can be reinstated by Friday, Nov. 10. Officials with the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) said this bout of roadway deck construction finished 21 days ahead of schedule because of warmer-than-usual temperatures, which allowed the concrete to cure at an accelerated pace. The underdeck construction will continue until early spring.

Eric Offenberg, director of engineering for RITBA, said the second phase included replacing 900 feet of the bridge’s 11,247-foot total length and that workers from Aetna Bridge Company of Warwick finished pouring the new deck on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

The $8.1 million deck repair project, part of RITBA’s $223 million, 10-year Renewal and Replacement Plan, which is funded through tolls, a percentage of the gasoline tax and bonding, began on the bridge’s east approach on the Newport side. When the bridge was built 48 years ago, the bridge deck’s lifespan was estimated to be 30 years. RITBA has been able to extend the life of the deck with continuous maintenance.

Last spring, crews demolished and replaced the first portion of the concrete roadway deck from curb to curb. They also removed the existing steel bearings from the bridge’s original construction and replaced them with elastomeric bearings that support vertical loads with minimal compression and allow the structure to expand and contract with little resistance.

“We did final concrete work last week and now crews are doing clean up and final prep to reopen all the lanes on Friday,” Offenburg said. “Our contractor has worked tirelessly and had a number of different crews working 16- to 18- hour days to make sure we could expedite the schedule.”

Even though this portion of the bridge is complete, workers still need to replace another 10,000 feet of bridge deck. Offenberg said the next phase of the eight-year project will not begin until 2019, and a cable inspection will be completed in summer 2018.

In a Nov. 8 statement, RITBA said workers will continue ongoing maintenance to other areas of the bridge, however, which will require occasional lane closures between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. These lane closures are standard with routine maintenance, the statement said, and don’t affect rush hour traffic.

For the most part, Offenburg said, wait times in traffic getting onto the bridge eastbound in the morning and heading westbound in the afternoon have decreased. Offenberg attributed this to the authority’s implementation of different traffic strategies, drivers being flexible with their work commutes to avoid peak traffic times, and an overall decrease in traffic after the tourist season ended.

“Because the days are getting shorter, we’ve had to deal with sun glare in the morning and afternoon, and we’ve had a couple of accidents due to that,” he said. “Certainly, when there’s accidents it causes a backup, but overall, I think a lot of the strategies we’ve put in place, such as having a police officer directing traffic getting onto the bridge heading west, have really helped.”

Each day of the project, RITBA had interns driving during morning and afternoon commutes, using a variety of routes. The times for each of those commuter routes were posted online so people could see the numbers. During the week of Oct. 23-27, it took 12 minutes to get over the bridge going eastbound in the morning, and approximately 11 minutes driving westbound in the afternoon, according to the online log.

“A lot of people think we planned this poorly, but we actually spent years planning this so that it would go as smoothly as possible,” Offenberg said. “We’ve invested a lot of time and money into communicating with people so that everyone understands why we needed to complete this project now.”

Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport, kept in close touch with RITBA throughout the project, and attributes the decreased traffic to flexible commuters.

“The major reason this fall semester went better than spring is that people did a better job of adjusting commute schedules,” he said. “The construction schedule was the same, but I think more people picked the time slot that worked for them to go over the bridge.”

As a Jamestown resident, Smith commutes over the bridge multiple times a day and said he’s proof that commuters have adjusted. He often would wait until after the morning traffic rush, around 9 or 9:30 a.m., to drive over the bridge. During both morning and afternoon rushes, when many people drive westbound over the bridge, he noted that traffic was lighter than in the spring. Unfortunately, Smith said, unforeseen events like accidents could bring all traffic on one side to a stop, but that’s been the exception, not the rule.

“Nobody says ‘Wow, this is fun,’ but it’s necessary and so people have adapted and figured out how to deal with this kind of traffic during the morning and evening commute,” he said. “But we’re pretty much at the finish line, which is great news for all.”

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