PROVIDENCE — The rotary on the East Providence side of the new Henderson Bridge has left many drivers dismayed and confused.
But during a ceremony Monday marking the opening of the new $84.4 million bridge, Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. predicted motorists will get used to the traffic circle in a month or two, and he emphasized that the rotary will end up resulting in fewer serious crashes and traffic deaths.
Alviti said the Department of Transportation has added signs, removed barrels, and completed more work on the rotary since Nov. 17 when cars started crossing the bridge, which spans the Seekonk River between Providence and East Providence. He said frustration with the new rotary reflects similar feedback to other rotaries.
Drivers trying to navigate the new rotary have reported confusion about knowing where to go, and some drivers are even coming to a complete stop while in the rotary.
“Initially people have some difficulty,” he said. “But in the long run, it adapts into the community, and they end up loving it. And it ends up savings lives and serious injuries.”
While there may have been some close calls at the outset, Alviti said, “The traffic calming effect of a roundabout will reduce the number of serious accidents considerably, and we have recorded proof of that every place that we have used them.” He cited experiences with new rotaries in Cumberland and Warwick.
One part of the rotary is not open yet because work is continuing on the road heading east on the Henderson Expressway toward North Broadway. “Some outlets are not open yet, but they will be,” Alviti said. “And as they complete that work, I think the traffic pattern will clear up a bit.”
Construction will continue through 2024, including work on the Henderson Expressway. Demolition of the old “Red Bridge” will begin in January, officials said, and project completion is set for summer 2025.
Alviti fielded questions from reporters following a ceremony that brought the state’s full congressional delegation together with local officials at the Waterman Grille in Providence, with the bridge visible out the widow.
Speakers praised US Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, for securing a $54.5 million federal grant as part of a spending law that he authored to help states with the worst bridges, such as Rhode Island. The federal government ended up providing 80 percent of the funding, and the state provided 20 percent, officials said.
The Henderson Bridge, which carries more than 20,000 vehicles per day, had been deemed structurally deficient back in 1996, Alviti said. “It was sitting there for decades, just falling apart,” he said. “It was falling down.”
But the new bridge will help the state meet its 10-year goal of reducing the level of deficient bridges from 27 percent to 10 percent by 2026, he said. “We are right on track to accomplish that mission,” he said.
When it first opened in 1969, the Henderson Bridge was “overbuilt” because it was supposed to be part of a highway expansion project that never was completed, officials said. The new bridge’s “structural footprint” will be 75 percent smaller, but it won’t slow down traffic and it will reduce maintenance costs, they said.
“The original bridge was a six-lane bridge with a highway to nowhere on one side of it,” Alviti said. “Now we created that into a three-lane bridge for vehicle traffic that is right-sized for not only the amount of vehicle traffic we have now but into the future. And we created a bike and pedestrian bridge adjacent to it that opens up the use of this bridge to alternative modes and furthers our efforts to lower our carbon emissions.”
Earlier this month, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha blasted the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to cut carbon emissions, calling it “misguided” and “unambitious” and warning that it risks wasting millions of federal dollars. The department revised its plan by, among other things, boosting bike path spending.
And on Monday, the Department of Transportation announced that Rhode Island has been ranked 11th in the nation for its use of transportation funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “This is, I think, a major, major recognition that we are doing it right at DOT,” Alviti said.
The Department of Transportation said the Henderson Bridge project will open up 25 acres of waterfront property, creating a “unique economic development opportunity,” especially on the East Providence side.
Alviti said the state will transfer the 25 acres to the cities over the next year. “I am sure the mayors of Providence and East Providence have a vision for what those areas are going to look like,” he said.
East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva said he wants to see “mixed-use development” and greater public access along the Seekonk River. He said he envisions something akin to Providence’s Blackstone Boulevard in the area between Massasoit Avenue and North Broadway.
“That is a six-lane highway,” he said. “Imagine that being slimmed down to a two-lane or three-lane road where you now have something like the Blackstone Boulevard — where you have a park along the middle and you have housing opportunities on either side that are facing the road.”
DaSilva noted that it’s early in the process, and there are no solid plans at this point. But he said he would also like to see that concept extended from North Broadway to Pawtucket Avenue, and he said that would alleviate traffic in surrounding neighborhoods.
DaSilva also said he would like to see the bike lane over the new Henderson Bridge connected with the East Bay Bike Path via Waterfront Drive. Alviti said during the next year the state will finish creating a new Interstate 95 off ramp that will take traffic up Waterfront Drive to the new Henderson Bridge.
DaSilva said he hopes to see greater public access all along the Seekonk River, from as far north as Pawtucket down to the southern tip of East Providence. “We want people to be able to enjoy this great natural resource,” he said.
When asked about the confusion over the new rotary, DaSilva said, “I think people need to be patient. Understand there is still a project under construction. It’s not complete. Roundabouts are safer. They slow traffic down. They create less accidents, less serious accidents. So I think it will be a win/win once it’s all done.”