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COLUMN | DAN MCGOWAN

Don’t give Peter Alviti the pass he wants for the Washington Bridge fiasco

Peter Alviti Jr., director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (center) is flanked by Jeffrey Klein, director of structural engineering for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (left) and Joseph Almond, senior deputy chief of staff for Governor Daniel McKee, before a legislative hearing about the Washington Street Bridge.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

When I was a senior in high school, I was brought home in a police cruiser one night because I got caught acting like a buffoon with a bunch of my buddies.

It was the school winter vacation in 2003, and we were driving around the mean streets of West Haven, Conn., likely listening to a big chunk of what would end up being Usher’s halftime show at the Super Bowl this year. Except we kept stopping in front of random houses, jumping out of the car, and tackling snowmen like they were blindsided quarterbacks.

This wasn’t exactly the crime of the century, but some father called the cops when he looked out the window and saw five boys taking baseball bats to an especially impressive snow creature which, in fairness to us, had frozen over to become a four-foot ice sculpture.

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We didn’t get arrested, but the police insisted that we drive over to the man’s house to apologize, and then they accompanied each of us on a walk of shame to our own homes to tell our parents about our juvenile antics.

I still remember my father’s reaction – “No wonder none of you guys have girlfriends” – as I pleaded with him not to ground me or take away my Nokia. We had never done anything like this before, I insisted.

Look, I made the honor roll.

Give me a pass on this one.

I had a flashback to that night on Monday afternoon as I watched Peter Alviti Jr., director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, discuss the abrupt closure last December of the westbound side of the Washington Bridge, which may have to be completely rebuilt.

Alviti sat for a four-hour hearing held by the House and Senate Oversight Committees, repeatedly explaining that the failure of the bridge and the lack of communication about it was an “anomaly” at his highly functioning agency.

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To his credit, Alviti apologized to the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders whose lives have been disrupted – in some cases, pretty severely – by the bridge fiasco. He even choked up as he explained that he wakes up and goes to sleep thinking about the safety issues.

“I’m truly sorry,” Alviti told committee members, showing far more empathy than we’ve seen from Governor Dan McKee throughout this whole situation. “I accept responsibility for it. I’m at the top of DOT.”

The trouble is everything else he said.

He devoted large chunks of the hearing to patting himself on the back with both hands, defiantly declaring that “we’ve fixed more bridges in the last eight years than this state has fixed in decades before that.”

When he was asked about my colleague Brian Amaral’s reporting that some of his union members believe that “the environment is toxic” at the agency, he wrote them off as workers who have resisted change.

“The changes that we have made have created a very healthy, happy, and extremely productive workforce at DOT,” Alviti said.

Yet, as flawlessly as this hard-charging agent of change has been running the DOT, it took three days before anyone – his employees or contracted engineers – bothered to call him to let him know that a couple of rods on the bridge had failed and it might need to be shut down.

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An engineer discovered the problem on Dec. 8 – a Friday afternoon – and according to the timeline Alviti laid out for committee members, a team of engineers worked over that weekend to inspect the bridge. By Monday morning, Dec. 11, even more analysts and experts were brought in to review the findings.

There were no emails, texts, or calls to Alviti about the bridge until Monday afternoon to let him know of the closure recommendation. Talk about a hands-off boss.

You know the rest of this story.

Alviti called McKee around 2:52 p.m. that Monday, and by 4:30 p.m. the bridge was closed. Alviti held a press conference that was carried live by every TV station in the market without telling McKee, who chose to attend a high school basketball practice while thousands of people were stuck in hours-long traffic on I-195 West. McKee also posed for pictures at a local pizza joint earlier in the day while being completely in the dark about the status of the bridge.

Don’t worry, Alviti told the committee. This is all how it’s supposed to work. The Federal Highway Administration has even endorsed the way DOT handles critical failures of bridges, he claimed.

Then he acknowledged, “It’s not perfect.”

You think?

If this all sounds rather unfathomable, you’re not alone. Gary Sasse, a former state Department of Administration director under former governor Don Carcieri, told me the bridge problems should have been flagged for superiors right away.

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“I could not imagine any crisis of this magnitude where the DOT and DOA directors, as well as the governor, were not notified within minutes of the problem being identified,” Sasse said. “The success of leadership is determined by how strategies designed to deal with sudden and significant events are implemented.”

Committee members didn’t even get into the fact that Alviti initially predicted it would take three months to repair the bridge, and now we won’t even learn the extent of the problem until the end of this month. It could be years before we have a true solution to what state Representative Jon Brien has dubbed “Carmageddon.”

The good news is there is no shortage of people paying attention to the bridge now, and Alviti has promised to share the findings of multiple reviews currently being conducted, no matter how embarrassing they might be. The Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Justice are also poking around.

The more investigators the merrier, I say.

Because Alviti shouldn’t get a pass for this debacle.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.