BARRINGTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The Barrington River Bridge was three years late and $10 million over budget when it finally opened in 2009. The project was such a debacle that the R.I. Department of Transportation wound up owing millions of dollars to the contractor.
And less than 10 years after it opened to traffic, the $23.8 million overpass has already landed on the state’s list of problem bridges.
In a July 30 report to the General Assembly, RIDOT officials disclosed that they had placed the span — which carries Route 114 over the Barrington River — on their list of “structurally deficient” bridges during the spring due to its “poor” condition.
An April 4 inspection report obtained by Target 12 shows the culprit isn’t something the average driver would notice — the fast-moving currents of the Barrington River are eroding two of the underwater steel beams that hold up the 20,696-square-foot bridge, a problem called “scour.”
RIDOT’s inspection reports use traffic light colors to grade bridges. The Barrington bridge’s underwater section earned a green-colored “7” rating in its first inspection in 2009, but dropped to a yellow “6” in 2011, 2013 and 2015, then a yellow “5” in 2017, and finally a red “4” this year.
Robert Rocchio, RIDOT’s chief engineer for infrastructure, said the issue came as a surprise when inspectors first noticed it during a routine check two years ago.
“We didn’t have it listed as a scour-critical bridge, or a bridge that could potentially have erosion because of swift currents,” he told Target 12. “But conditions do change. … So whether the conditions changed in the field or whether the conclusions were wrong, we don’t know.”
In response, RIDOT stepped up the frequency of inspections from every five years to every two years. Early this spring TranSystem, the company hired to inspect the bridge, sent divers down to check out the beams, where they discovered “severe corrosion.”
The good news, according to RIDOT, is that the problem was spotted early enough that workers can fix it for relatively short money. Rocchio estimated that it will cost roughly $100,000 to do the repair now, while the price tag would rise to millions of dollars if left unaddressed for a few years.
And Rocchio said RIDOT has more money available for repairs than it did in the past because of the extra funding provided under the 2016 RhodeWorks law. In the past, he said, “we would have found it just as quickly, but implementing the repairs may not have happened as quickly. But now we’re more focused on this.”
“The focus is on identifying any deterioration or any issues and addressing them quickly — we believe that saves a lot of money,” he said. “We know the old approach, of kicking the can down the road and not addressing issues promptly, we know it’s very expensive — because they quickly become larger issues, much more expensive, costly issues.”
The April 4 inspection report showed the Barrington River Bridge is otherwise in generally good condition, and Rocchio emphasized that it is “absolutely safe for traffic.”
The repair work on the beams is expected to be finished by the end of the year and should not affect traffic patterns on the bridge, he said. Next year RIDOT is planning to put a mitigation system in place to avoid the corrosion recurring.
The nearly $5 billion RhodeWorks program, championed by Gov. Gina Raimondo, is supposed to make 90% of Rhode Island’s bridge deck area structurally sufficient by 2025.
RIDOT has made slow progress in the first three years of RhodeWorks. Agency data shows 77% of bridge deck area was structurally sufficient as of June, up from 74.4% in the fall of 2016. Of the state’s 1,187 bridges, 221 were structurally deficient in June, down from as many as 247 in 2016.
Still, Rocchio said he understands why taxpayers might be dismayed to hear about yet another problem with the same bridge.
“I was here during the times of the construction delays, the cost increases — I feel their frustration,” he said.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook