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Five takeaways about Washington Bridge closure after R.I. DOT director’s testimony

The hearing provided a few new details, including what additional problems have been found in the troubled span

From left, Jeffrey Klein, director of structural engineering for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr., and Joseph Almond, senior deputy chief of staff for Governor Daniel J. McKee, prepare to deliver their opening remarks before the start of a joint hearing on the Washington Bridge with the House and Senate oversight committee at the State House on Feb. 12, 2023.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — State lawmakers grilled Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. and two other witnesses about the Washington Bridge westbound closure for nearly four hours on Monday.

Alviti was joined by Joseph Almond, senior deputy chief of staff to Governor Daniel J. McKee, and Jeffrey Klein, who is the director of structural engineering at the firm VHB.

The hearing provided a few new details around the margins of the bridge mess, including how Alviti found out; what additional problems have been found in the troubled span; and why some inspection reports used identical language for years.

Alviti also addressed reports that his department is rife with bullying and dysfunction, defending his stewardship by pointing to what he considers its successes.

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But answers to the big-picture questions will have to wait for another day. The biggest one, the “elephant in the room,” didn’t come up until Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr., a Warwick Democrat, asked it more than two hours in: Will the busy bridge that takes Interstate 195 westbound over the Seekonk River need to come down?

“I want to know that, too,” Alviti said. “I want to know that as much or more than anyone in the state does.”

The Washington Bridge westbound between East Providence and Providence was closed on Dec. 11 after the state discovered major structural deficiencies. The state expects answers on whether it can be repaired or will have to be rebuilt by the end of February or early March.

Here are five other key takeaways from the joint House and Senate oversight committee hearing at the State House:

Did the state miss something?

It wasn’t until House Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale started asking questions that the discussion became anything like a testy back-and-forth. Chippendale, a Foster Republican, pointed out that years of some annual reports about the bridge had the same repetitive language, including the same spelling errors. Why?

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“I asked that same question,” Alviti said.

“Now I’m asking it,” Chippendale said. “Hopefully I’ll get an answer.”

Representative Patricia A. Serpa, House Oversight Committee chairwoman, talks to Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. and Jeffrey Klein, director of structural engineering for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin before the start of a joint hearing on the Washington Bridge closure with the House and Senate oversight committees.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Alviti responded: Inspection companies use a central repository for reports. When they fill out a new year’s report, it’s pre-populated with what came up in original reports. So if the condition is the same, the language doesn’t change, he said.

Chippendale also asked whether anyone had discussed the possibility of putting load restrictions in place on the bridge. Alviti said the state hadn’t made any load limitations on the bridge itself. Chippendale cited a document in relation to those sorts of restrictions, saying, “There’s a lot of inconsistency a dope like me can find.”

Though they didn’t get a particularly clear or definitive answer, the questions about load restrictions seemed to be driving at the possibility that there were signs about problems with the bridge earlier than the state has indicated.

When did Alviti find out about the bridge?

In preparation for the hearing, the state DOT provided a timeline of who knew what and when. According to the timeline, a VHB supervisor alerted RIDOT staff on Friday, Dec. 8, about a potential critical finding — some of the tie-down rods that help hold the bridge together had broken or were in danger of breaking. They worked over the weekend to take a closer look. By Monday, Dec. 11, top RIDOT officials met with contractors. A recommendation emerged from that meeting: the bridge needed to close.

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But Alviti was not at that meeting. Alviti said he first found out the bridge might have to be closed Monday afternoon, he said, after that meeting. At 2:51 p.m., he texted McKee. That set in motion the process to close the bridge.

Asked whether he should have found out sooner, Alviti said RIDOT followed the proper procedures for a critical finding — but nevertheless, he wishes he had. “I have had discussions with the governor,” he said. “He expected he’d be informed of a situation like this soon. I, likewise. We started making changes at DOT so that advance notice happens.”

What other problems have been identified?

At first, in mid-December, the state estimated it would take about three months to repair the bridge. Now the DOT said it will only get the data back about what to do to fix the closure by late February or early March. One potential option is to rebuild the span entirely.

In the process of trying to repair the structure, workers installed new platforms. From that new perch, they saw more problems, particularly in cables that run through ducts that are filled with grout and anchored to a bearing plate. Workers found concrete section loss around the post-tensioning anchor zone, voids beneath the post-tensioning bearing plate, and soft grout.

“All of these deficiencies could indicate reduced tension in these cables, resulting in internal loss of strength within the existing beams,” Klein testified.

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Alviti apologizes for disruption; McKee aide backs off 10-15 minute estimate

Alviti offered an apology for the closure, even as he defended the state’s response in particular and his stewardship of RIDOT in general.

He said the Washington Bridge is one out of the 300 that DOT has fixed under his leadership.

“This one is an anomaly,” Alviti said. “The 1 of 300 that I am truly sorry for. I accept responsibility for. I’m at the top of DOT.”

Representative Jon D. Brien, a Woonsocket independent, pressed Almond, the McKee aide, about McKee’s statement that the bridge closure was adding 10 to 15 minutes to people’s commutes.

“How are the citizens of Rhode Island supposed to feel secure about and confident in the information that they’re being given is accurate and real when we’ve got the leader of the state saying, ‘Oh, it’s only 10 or 15 minutes’ when everybody knows that’s false?” Brien asked. “We’re not going to get the solutions unless we acknowledge that right now we have Carmageddon out there every single rush hour.”

Almond said the 10 to 15 minute figure served as an average baseline of the minimum delay, whereas crashes and other incidents can and often do make it much worse. He said the point was not to debate people who have been stuck in traffic for a very long time.

Bullying and dysfunction? Not at RIDOT, Alviti says

The Boston Globe reported last week that leadership at one of RIDOT’s unions said the agency was rife with bullying and dysfunction. Two days later, multiple other union and non-union employees, some anonymously and some through their lawyer, echoed that sentiment in a follow-up story in the Globe.

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Alviti disputed those reports by pointing to what he sees as RIDOT’s successes, like building bridges, starting a ferry service, and getting a train station built. State Representative Arthur Handy said he feared that in work conditions like the ones described in the Globe article, people may be afraid to speak out about critical issues; Alviti said that wasn’t the case at RIDOT. He added that the people quoted in the Globe’s story had other, unspecified motives, or were resistant to change. Multiple RIDOT employees reached out to The Boston Globe to reject that claim even while Alviti was still testifying.

Afterward, Alviti was asked if he was dismissing the statements made in the Globe article. “Oh, no. I don’t dismiss anything,” he said. “I’m going to be looking into all of it.”

See more coverage of the Washington Bridge closure in R.I.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44. Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.