RIDOT: Flawed data partly to blame for I-195 construction traffic mess

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The director of the R.I. Department of Transportation says he may ask the vendor that conducted a traffic study for the Washington Bridge project to reimburse taxpayers after he alleges the flawed data contributed to massive traffic backups on I-195.

“That’ll all be part of what we’re looking at,” Peter Alviti said in response to a question from Eyewitness News about getting a refund. “We will be revisiting to see … where the responsibility lies.”

The consulting agency AECOM won the contract for the project, according to RIDOT, and conducted a study into how best to divert traffic while the agency rebuilds the Washington Bridge on I-195 Westbound in Providence. The company has been paid $3 million to date for the contract, which expires at the end of 2019.

The traffic pattern that was ultimately used – which included closing the Gano Street exit and the Taunton Avenue on-ramp to the bridge, then opening a temporary Taunton Avenue on-ramp to 195 – caused major delays and traffic backups to the state line last week.

“We are a very data-driven organization,” Alviti said Tuesday. “The data that we were provided told us that there would be a certain traffic outcome. It did not.”

He said in “99 out of 100” projects, the data supports a traffic pattern that works out well.

RIDOT temporarily halted the project on Sunday after a week of traffic, and reopened lanes that had been closed for the bridge construction. The Gano Street exit remains closed, but traffic subsided significantly after the Taunton Avenue on-ramp got its own dedicated lane, instead of trying to merge with through traffic on 195 West.

Eyewitness News obtained the initial AECOM traffic study, conducted in 2014 and 2015, which made recommendations about how to handle traffic and detours during the project.

For phase 1, the study recommended closing the two northern lanes of the bridge, along with the Gano Street exit and the Taunton Avenue on-ramp.

The study did not recommend opening a temporary on-ramp from Taunton Avenue, instead detouring traffic over the Henderson Bridge to the East Side of Providence, though the study’s authors acknowledged that detour would create “extensive delays” on East Side streets.

Alviti has said the DOT did not go with that detour because it would have caused even more traffic headaches. He said the reconfiguration of the traffic pattern is part of the reason the Washington Bridge project was delayed by a year.

A spokesperson elaborated Wednesday, telling Eyewitness News the decision to deviate from AECOM’s recommendations in the traffic study was done because the traffic pattern would have been “unsustainable.”

“The decision was RIDOT’s,” Charles St. Martin said in an email. “The original study recommended closings that would have forced high levels of traffic onto Gano and Angell Streets in Providence that would have been unsustainable. The traffic study noted traffic would have been three times higher than it is today during rush hour traffic. That was determined by RIDOT to be unacceptable and why RIDOT made the decision not to close the Taunton Avenue on-ramp.”

RIDOT initially denied a request for traffic data from last week, citing an exemption to the public records law for “preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products.” But upon appeal, the DOT released data that shows travel times from the MA state line to exit 2 reached 55 minutes on the high end for drivers using Route 44 (Taunton Avenue) to 195 West during the morning rush. Drivers on 195 West from the state line through exit 2 experienced travel times of 29 minutes during the 8 am hour. The documents are labeled “Draft.”

After the project was paused, those travel times dropped to 7 minutes for drivers on Route 44 and 12 minutes on 195 West.

Moving forward, Alviti said DOT engineers are still working with AECOM, whose contract expires at the end of 2019, to come up with a better traffic pattern. He said once the bridge project starts up again and two lanes are closed, the DOT is considering moving a lane from the eastbound side to the westbound side in order to keep three lanes of through traffic and one lane dedicated to cars coming from the Taunton Avenue ramp.

There’s no timeline yet for when the construction will start up again.

“It’s going to take as long as it takes in order to ensure us that the next step goes on successfully and safely,” Alviti said.

Eyewitness News has requested comment from AECOM multiple times this week, but the company has not yet commented.

AECOM currently has six contracts open with the state, including for inspection work and long-term planning. The state has paid the company more than $24 million since 2012, including $3 million for the Washington Bridge project.

A seventh contract with AECOM worth $100,000 is set to begin on Sept. 1 for “on-call cultural resource consulting services,” which a RIDOT spokesman said is for federally required environmental assessments.

This story has been updated to reflect new traffic data released by RIDOT, which the agency previously declined to release.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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