Planes, Trains and Automobiles!
Everything you need to know to get around in Rhode Island.
Illustrations by Shaw Nielsen
(page 1 of 5)
Whether it’s by land, sea or air, Rhode Islanders are a creative bunch when it comes to getting around. To see just where we are going and how, we rounded up commuter tales, filled the gaps in pothole facts and dissected various infrastructure projects. You’ll have a whole new understanding of the many aspects of navigating our small state.
The Price of a Pothole
One nasty divot cost drivers nearly $10,000 in repairs.
By Ellen Liberman
There was once a great pothole on Gano Street in Providence that terrorized drivers attempting to access the I-195 onramp. It may not have been large enough to swallow a car whole, but it punctured tires, bent wheel rims and threw steering systems out of alignment with impunity, caring neither for Mercedes nor Mazda. In 2014 and 2015, this devil of a divot cost nineteen drivers nearly $10,000 in repairs.
But the city, which caps pothole claim payouts at $300, only compensated Gano Street’s victims $4,384.
Each year, the waning days of winter produce a new crop of potholes that tear into municipal expenditure plans. The Gano Street pothole garnered the most casualties over two years. Still, it paled to the damage apparently inflicted on one driver who had an unfortunate encounter with a pothole on Valley Street. In 2014, she filed a $1 million claim for injuries and damages against the city. It remains a pending legal matter.
In theory, it only costs $20 to $30 to fill a pothole — if street crews can get to them fast enough and fill them with an aggregate that won’t be tossed out at the next frost heave. But, in the less-than-perfect world of your typical department of public works, it’s the unfilled pothole that kills you. In 2014, the city of Providence fielded 660 claims and reportedly paid out more than $95,000.
Last March, Mayor Jorge Elorza made potholes a priority. He launched #PVDPotholeHunt, a campaign to encourage residents to use the city’s 311 hotline or the PVD311 mobile application to report potholes quickly, and an online pothole tracker to follow the city’s response.
“My guys are out filling potholes every day,” says Colonel Michael Borg, the city’s director of public works. “This has been a worthy investment. We are under 100 claims for the past twelve months from potholes. Our guys are actively looking for potholes, filling them and responding to 311s in twenty-four hours. I take it very seriously. No one wants their car damaged.”
In 2015, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) sought to slay the problem with a “pothole killer” machine that cut state claims from a five-year average of 560 to 151 — a 73 percent drop. The pothole killer trucks spray-inject a special emulsion that can be applied in all weathers, even below-freezing temperatures.
“The synthetic petroleum dries and hardens, and it’s more lasting than the original road,” says Charles St. Martin, DOT spokesman. “You do it in two minutes and you don’t have to go back.”
"Let's Fill Potholes, not Graves"
Over the holidays, the DOT’s anti-DUI electronic highway signs were difficult to ignore. Some went heavy on the exclamation points: “Drinking! Driving! = Handcuffs.” or “Your designated driver is your best friend!” Others were straightforward. One announced that more than 40 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities involve alcohol. And the most memorable of the bunch — “Let’s Fill Potholes, Not Graves” — felt morbidly appropriate in the Pothole State. The sign text, which was submitted by local police officers and DOT staffers, complemented a $3.5 million, federally funded initiative that included TV spots and a social media hashtag, #BeyondTheCrash. Advertising firm, RDW, helped develop the campaign, which is one step in the DOT’s ambitious ten-year plan to eliminate drunk driving in Rhode Island.
The Emblem of Our Structural Deficiency
What’s the story behind the Stuck-Up Bridge?
The Crook Point Bascule Bridge (yes, that’s its real name), which hovers above the Seekonk River in Providence, was built in 1908. A Scherzer Rolling Lift railway bridge, the structure connected the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad lines to Union Station in Providence. But as train traffic slowed in the ’70s, the state could no longer afford to maintain and lift the bridge for river traffic. Instead of demolishing it, our ingenious state leaders abandoned the bridge entirely. It’s been stuck up at a 64-degree angle since 1976.
By Land and Sea
Thirty miles by car, then thirteen miles by boat. Twice a day.
Scott Moran rationalizes his commute this way: “I have the best of both worlds.”
A Warwick resident, Moran operates a gardening business on Block Island three seasons out of the year.
“The reaction I often get from people is either, ‘Ugh, how do you do it?’ or ‘Wow, you get to work on Block Island!’ ” he says. “I consider myself fortunate. When I first moved from Block Island to the mainland after being a resident out there for several years, it was 2010, and it was still a recession economy. I had gainful employment at a good rate, so I was willing to put up with it.”
Six seasons later, he’s still making the commute, and he says it’s not so bad. He deems his mornings a “rush to wait,” where he scrambles on the road to make the ferry; Moran takes the traditional boat or the high-speed in the summer, which has a more forgiving schedule. “People are an anomaly that you cannot account for when you live by a minute-to-minute, timed commute,” he says. “If you hit a pocket of people and you can’t figure out how they’re going to move — either on the road, or when they’re burdened by all of the possessions they need for their one-week vacation — that’s horrible.”
It takes Moran one-and-a-half to two hours to get to work: forty-five minutes in the car, a short walk from his parking spot in the DEM lot to the ferry in Galilee, then a half-hour to fifty-minute boat ride into Block Island’s Old Harbor. Once on the island, Moran says he rarely drives more than five miles a day from client to client.
“I don’t see the ocean,” he says. “The boat is my office. I’m doing hours and materials lists and planning my day. I’m doing billing. Thankfully, I don’t get seasick. I can read on my commute. So yes, I might travel thirteen miles across the ocean during sunrise and sunset, but I often don’t even look out the window.”
Instead, he finds beauty in less-expected places: “The meadows on Route 4, between Home Depot and through the first light (in North Kingstown),” he says. “They change every season. And there’s this one oak tree, after the Route 4/Route 1 split. It’s on your left if you’re going south, and it’s majestic.”
The splendor of Block Island isn’t lost on him, though — even after a frantic morning trying to get there.
“When stepping onto Block Island, you feel it, you breathe it, you smell it. It’s different — like, holy cow, smell that air after a two-hour commute where you leave nothing but exhaust fumes behind you,” he says. “I’m often concerned about what my carbon footprint looks like. We’re talking about a goliath print.”
Moran estimates about twenty other regulars — mostly homebuilders from South County — head to the island every day for work. The ferry commuter’s mantra is “keys, wallet, phone,” complete with a pocket pat, he says. If Moran forgets his keys in his truck on Block Island and boards the ferry, he’s out of luck when he reaches the mainland.
“My commute is relatively twenty hours a week of unpaid time, which is obviously not lucrative,” he says. “There are inconveniences. But it’s a job I have that provides a livable wage for myself and for my family. I get some quality personal time; I’m driving myself, in my bubble, in my world, listening to the news and the music I like. To have that privilege is huge.”
Moran says he can’t keep up with the commute forever, but for now: Keys, wallet, phone. Keys, wallet, phone.
The 6-10 Conundrum
Surface-level boulevard? Big Dig-style capped highway? Nah, no time for that. The most structurally deficient roadway in the most structurally deficient state in the nation needed help, fast. After months of quibbling, the city of Providence and the governor’s office landed on a compromise. (Props to Transport Providence, Fix the 6-10 Coalition and Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition for keeping their eyes on the project.) The revised plan, a four-year, $400 million endeavor that will break ground this fall, includes a much-needed direct connection from Route 10 North onto Route 6 West, resulting in a less-congested Olneyville Square; a mile and a half of new bike paths; a shortened Huntington Viaduct; the elimination of the scary Harris Avenue crossing; and the retirement of the Plainfield Street onramp.
State of Disrepair
Why are Rhode Island's bridges so terrible?
Before and after.
Clarence L. Hussey was the state’s first official bridge engineer and his namesake — the concrete and steel-arch span over Wickford Cove — was his last project. Just as the Hussey Bridge transformed Wickford by connecting the village to the Hamilton section of the town, he also transformed the state’s bridge building. A newly minted graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he brought a scientific approach to the enterprise, taking a complete inventory documented in more than 40,000 photographs, prioritizing repairs and lavishly applying his favorite building material: concrete.
More than ninety years after the Hussey Bridge was completed, Rhode Island’s bridges and the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) method of keeping them safe and in good repair has come full circle. With 56 percent of the state’s 1,162 bridges structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, Rhode Island ranks dead last in the nation in overall bridge condition.
“I think, basically, it was years of DOT having poor management, poor planning, poor finances and poor execution delivery,” says DOT Director Peter Alviti Jr. “It’s the responsibility of the leadership at DOT to graphically demonstrate the need, and provide a plan on which that need can be addressed, to convince the legislature to invest in it, and I don’t think they saw it.”
Enter RhodeWorks, a $4.7 billion, ten-year plan to — among other things — return 90 percent of the state’s bridges to structural sufficiency by 2025. While everyone from former Republican Governor Donald Carcieri to Democratic Socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders agreed that the state’s bridges were in desperate need of repair, there was decidedly less harmony on how to finance this ambitious goal. The most vigorously contested aspect of the 2015 legislation is the implementation of commercial truck tolls on highway bridges to fund bridge construction. In the near term, the DOT refinanced existing bonds to free up $129 million in federal funds and has issued $300 million in new bonds to support a surge of bridge building in the first five years.
Less debated, but more important, says Alviti, is the radical re-organization of the DOT under RhodeWorks. No longer are projects atomized into planning, engineering and construction divisions. There’s one budget, one schedule and one project manager to see that neither is violated without good cause.
The No Truck Tolls bumper stickers haven’t yet curled at the edges, and the DOT has already rolled out $174 million in projects since 2016, including repairs to thirty-five bridges. The Hussey Bridge was the first. Finished eight months ahead of schedule, the extensive, $3.2 million renovations included restoration of the concrete on the arches, where the rebar inside had rotted, replacement of the steel railings, swapping out the rivets for bolts and new LED lights in the historically accurate light globes. The perfect historical symmetry, not to mention state-of-the-art engineering, wouldn’t be lost on Clarence L. Hussey. –Ellen Lieberman
By The Numbers
203 – Total number of signs
$135 – The estimated cost per sign
5 – The number of signs with yellow dots (behind schedule by less than six months)
6 – The number of signs with red dots (behind schedule by more than six months) Source: RIDOT
$6,018,280 – Newport/Pell Bridge vehicle fares paid with cash in FY 2016
$13, 353, 732 – Newport/Pell Bridge vehicle fares paid with EZ Pass in FY 2016
$8,278,663 – The amount of unpaid Newport/Pell Bridge tolls sent to collections in FY 2016
306 days – How long the ill-fated Sakonnet River Bridge toll was in operation
$20– Cost to cross the state in any direction
$40 – Daily maximum to cross the state
14 – Projected number of tolling gantries
$4.4 million – Projected annual operating cost
$38 million – Cost to erect the tolling gantries
$45 million – How much the state expects to raise annually in truck tolls
60% – The percentage of anticipated revenue from out-of-state truckers
Sources: Rhode Island Bridge andTurnpike Authority/RIDOT
Surviving The Apponator
COURTESY OF RIDOT
Going round and round in circles.
By Sarah Francis
The Apponaug Circulator (not a rotary, thank you DOT for clarifying) has been under construction for what seems like forever, but is, in fact, a little more than two years old. This is the state’s $71 million, two-mile effort (sometimes known not very affectionately as the Apponator) to liberate marooned Apponaug Village from the 24,000 cars that zoom around it in a circular cloud of dust and squealing tires every day. The project is scheduled to wrap up around the time we’ll be colonizing Mars, at least that’s what local merchants, who’ve been living through the mess and confusion, are probably thinking.
The DOT has posted a drivers’ tutorial on the Circulator, with fun facts such as: “a single-lane roundabout only has eight ‘points of conflict’ where a crash could occur. Typical intersections have thirty-two.” Who knew?
Apponaug now has four of these roundabouts, and they were finally open for business one rainy day in November. I’m proud to announce it only took me three attempts before I successfully navigated all of them, past the Warwick Fire Department, heading south down Post Road instead of careening off towards the wilds of West Warwick. (In my defense, even my GPS hadn’t figured it out.)
Kenneth Rudman, a local dentist who’s had a bird’s eye view during the construction, helpfully noted on his outdoor office sign, “Burger King is open — if you can find it!”
It’s that typical can-do attitude we expect from Rhode Islanders. So even though I’ve heard there’s a fifth roundabout still to come later this year, fear not, fellow drivers. If I can survive the Apponator, we all can.
Take the Long Way Home
These scenic drives get you from A to B.
Country Roads to Sand and Surf
On hot days, this leafy route offers a laidback alternative to beach traffic, especially if you’re headed to Ninigret Park, Quonnie or Misquamicut. Take Route 4 South to exit 5A and onto Route 102. Make a left onto Route 2 and pass Schartner Farms, where you should, without shame, pick up a piping-hot order of curly fries for the road. Along the route, you’ll see marshlands and working farms beneath a canopy of trees. In Charlestown, Route 2 merges with Route 112 then abruptly ends at Route 1, mere minutes from the state’s southernmost beaches.
Culture Vulture Detour
When 95 North’s a mess, hop off on exit 20. Head east over the Point Street Bridge, then make a left onto historic Benefit Street. Your detour cuts through College Hill, which buzzes with brainpower from Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University. Admire the historic homes and the well-heeled hipsters, graze on healthful snacks at Benefit Street Juice Bar or make intellectual pit stops at the Providence Athenaeum and the RISD Museum. Then, follow Benefit to North Main Street and make a left on Branch Avenue. From there, you’ll rejoin 95 above the mayhem.
Small Town USA to Gilded Glory
Route 114 is a favorite amongst Newport Bridge toll-dodgers. Head east on I-195 to exit 7, where you’ll pick up the route in East Providence. Then, traipse through the sweet waterside towns of Barrington, Warren and Bristol. Coast over the stunning Mount Hope Bridge — an adrenaline rush if we’ve ever felt one — and arrive on the northern tip of Aquidneck Island. A short drive through pastoral Portsmouth and busy Middletown lands you on Broadway in Newport.
Traffic Jams in 2017
This year, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation expects to break ground on forty-two projects totaling $211 million. Here are the big ones.