In a state full of crumbling bridges, $22 million Providence River span stands out
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PROVIDENCE — The state’s new $22 million pedestrian bridge curves across the Providence River, a crescent with wooden benches, sleek illuminated tables, and built-in chessboards stationed between stainless-steel railings on an upper deck of Brazilian hardwood.
To proponents, it’s a bridge to Rhode Island’s future — a smart investment that transforms what was once an I-195 bridge choked with cars and trucks into a vibrant public space, connecting two new waterfront parks, a riverside pedestrian walk and the emerging Providence Innovation and Design District. They see the span as the welcome product of an international design competition — no mere footbridge but a destination in itself.
To critics, it’s a bridge too far — a foolish investment for a state with the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the nation. They see taxpayers footing the bill for a Cadillac footbridge — far costlier than the $2 million originally earmarked for the span — while blue-collar Rhode Islanders drive across crumbling bridges and blow out tires on I-195 potholes.
With the official opening of the Providence River Pedestrian Bridge set for August, Rhode Islanders are debating whether the new footbridge represents a bold stride forward or another government misstep.
“All these defective bridges should be job one,” said former House minority leader Patricia Morgan, a Republican from West Warwick. “We are not walking on pedestrian bridges. We are trying to drive to work safely, and we are tired of going over bad roads and bridges.”
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association found 23.1 percent of bridges in Rhode Island were structurally deficient in 2018 — higher than any other state. Rhode Island has identified needed repairs on 721 bridges, including 27 on the Interstate Highway System, at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.
“Until we are at least in the middle of the pack with bridges, it is galling,” Morgan said of the footbridge. “Everyone should be shaking their heads in disbelief.”
But Bonnie Nickerson, director of Providence’s Department of Planning and Development, said, “We need to do both things at the same time: We need to be good about maintenance and safe infrastructure but also build the type of city and space that we want to see in the future.”
While the former I-195 bridge whisked people through the city as fast as possible, the pedestrian bridge will slow people down, providing a place to gather and enjoy the capital, Nickerson said. Flanked by new parks, the footbridge will complete a pedestrian circuit reaching north to the Providence Place mall, and she envisions the WaterFire art installation extending south to the bridge. “It’s going to be a spectacular place to be in itself,” she said.
Also, the bridge is part of the vision for the Providence Innovation and Design District rising on former I-195 land. “We know from around the country that these types of innovation districts are places that have a vibrant city life associated with them,” Nickerson said.
No doubt, it’s a special span. Step onto the bridge deck, made of the hard-as-nails Ipe wood. Follow the bluestone steps to a series of terraced lower levels, complete with LED lighting and grass plantings. Stand at the horizontal cables strung between stainless-steel railings and drink in views of the city and the waterfront, as if on the sun deck of a yacht.
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But how did a piece of bridge art end up in the middle of a state with bridges falling to pieces?
The story begins in 1999 when a Rhode Island School of Design architecture student hatched the idea of building a pedestrian bridge on the piers that carried I-195 across the river. Momentum built among community organizations and at community forums.
In 2008, the state Department of Transportation allocated $2 million toward construction of the pedestrian bridge. The idea was to build a simple footbridge rather than using that money to demolish the old I-195 concrete piers in the river, a DOT spokesman said.
In 2010, then-Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline (now in Congress) and then-DOT director Michael P. Lewis announced a Pedestrian Bridge Design Competition, and 47 design teams from Providence to Barcelona responded.
The public came to see 11 designs displayed at City Hall, and the winning firm was Detroit’s inFORM Studio. “The reason there is so much anticipation now is because so many people participated in imagining what the bridge could be like,” Nickerson said.
Along the way, the project’s scope and scale grew until the total cost for the 450-foot-long custom-built bridge came to $21.9 million, DOT director Peter Alviti Jr. said. In addition to design and other costs, the state awarded a $16.9-million construction contract to the lowest of seven bidders in 2016.
“This was more than scope creep,” Alviti said. “This was scope explosion.”
He inherited the project when he took over in 2015, he said. “There had been 10 years of city and stakeholder meetings and charettes. But it was something that we were obliged to follow through and execute.”
The project will provide Providence with a “visual asset,” Alviti said. “Look, does it add value to the district newly developing in that area? Yes. I can’t deny it is artistic and beautiful from an architectural standpoint.”
But, he said, “This is something that would never happen now at the current DOT. It would have been faster, better, cheaper.” The DOT now has a 10-year plan, clear funding mechanisms, and tight control over the scope and scale of projects, he said.
In 2016, Governor Gina M. Raimondo signed the RhodeWorks program into law, launching a 10-year plan to do $4.7 billion in bridge and road work. Morgan and other critics say the plan’s new tolls on large commercial trucks will hurt the business climate and the state should take care of basics before investing in fancy footbridges.
“A pedestrian bridge seems like extra — bells and whistles,” said state Representative Brian C. Newberry, a Republican from North Smithfield. “It’s nice, but it should not be the priority.”
But Jef Nickerson, founder of the Greater City Providence website (and a distant cousin of Bonnie Nickerson), said the span will provide stunning views, bicycle and pedestrian connections, plus needed waterfront access in the city. “It’s not just a piece of infrastructure — it’s a destination,” he said. “It’s a worthy investment.”
People are already hanging out on the bridge, he said. “It’s becoming an icon of the city and it’s not even done yet.”
For more than three years, a Providence resident named Dr. Timothy Empkie has been posting photos and weekly updates about the bridge project on Twitter and Facebook. He envisions hundreds of thousands of people crossing the bridge each year and using it for social gatherings, musical performances, and other events. “It’s more than just a way to cross the river,” he said.
He said progress was delayed for years in part by ill-fated plans for a Pawtucket Red Sox ballpark on the river. Work didn’t begin until fall 2016 and now construction is 10 months behind schedule, the DOT says.
So will it be worth the wait and the cost? “It is an awful lot of money to spend on a bridge,” Empkie said. “On the other hand, we can see what a neat project it is.”