On Dec. 11, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation shut down the westbound side of the I-195 Washington Bridge due to structural concerns, causing traffic delays. On Jan. 26, the United States Department of Justice and Office of the Inspector General released a federal investigation into the bridge’s closure.
Built in 1969, the Washington Bridge allows drivers to travel over the Seekonk River from Providence to East Providence and also access Seekonk, Massachusetts. The bridge’s closure has negatively impacted small businesses in East Providence, which rely on patrons traveling across the bridge from Providence and further west.
On Jan. 22, RIDOT Director Peter Alviti announced that the Washington Bridge may need to be torn down completely and rebuilt, WBUR reported. Updates are pending, but Alviti has said that the bridge will take priority over all other transportation projects in the state.
In fall 2023, engineers began working on the bridge as part of the $78 million Washington Bridge reconstruction project, a plan RIDOT financed to “address chronic congestion issues on the Interstate,” according to the department’s website.
It soon became apparent that there were significant issues on the westbound side of the bridge and closing these lanes would be necessary to address safety concerns. A detailed report has since been released providing sketches and images of the deficient infrastructure.
The closure of the westbound side of the bridge led to heavy congestion. More than 96,000 vehicles drive over the bridge each day, according to RIDOT. Public safety alerts warned drivers to avoid the area around I-95 and to find alternative routes.
“It was a nightmare that first day when the highway wasn't open,” Alisha Rodriguez, owner of Lavish Salon in East Providence, told The Herald. “All of East Providence was bumper to bumper, and there were cops blocking every single side street because people were trying to cut through. I couldn't even get into the parking lot of my salon because there was so much traffic.”
A day after the bridge’s initial closure Alviti provided more insight into the situation. “On each side of the bridge, there are eight major pins that hold beams in place,” he said in a press conference with Gov. Dan McKee. “When one pin becomes deficient it can have a compounding effect on the other pins which is what happened in this case.”
A 2020 infrastructure report card compiled by the Rhode Island Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers found that Rhode Island had the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country.
On Dec. 15, RIDOT opened bypass lanes to provide some traffic leeway. The department also created a temporary ferry service between Bristol and Providence as an alternative route for commuters. Due to low ridership, the ferry’s service ended on Jan. 19.
Asher Schofield, co-owner of Frog & Toad has noticed changes across his businesses.
“The number (of customers) have remained unchanged at our West end location,” Schofield told The Herald. “But for folks that do drive to come and see us at our store in East Providence, that number has definitely reduced.”
“There's the actual anecdotal experiential delay in your drive through that traffic, but moreover it's what's being talked about on the radio, on coffee breaks, at the bar and at night,” Schofield added. “Everybody's talking about the bridge closure and for good reasons. But after a while, the hyperbole surrounding it becomes even more of a deterrent than the physical deterrent does.”
To alleviate the impact of road closures on small businesses, the U.S. Small Business Administration has encouraged businesses to apply for low-interest, long-term Economic Injury Disaster Loans. According to the administration’s website, businesses in Providence, Bristol and Kent counties, among others, can apply for these loans.
“690 applications [have been] submitted for this disaster declaration,” wrote Matthew Spoehr, deputy district director of the Rhode Island District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, in an email to The Herald.
While there have been five approvals as of date, Spoehr expects these numbers to increase. “Many of the business affected will not truly start to realize the depth of the economic injury they sustained from this event until many months down the road,” he added.
But, many business owners stressed that these loans can not fix their immediate problems. Some who received loans during the pandemic are wary of taking out additional loans from the SBA prior to paying off their existing debts.
“I haven’t tried to apply for a SBA loan, because I still haven't finished paying my loans from COVID,” said Minerva’s Pizza owner Kaylin Hibachi. “I’ve had to hire additional staff, which is additional money and still customers are not satisfied because they're not getting the orders in a timely fashion.”
Jackson Rosh, the restaurant manager of East Providence’s Honeybird, told The Herald his business has been one of the lucky ones. He shared that revenue has remained relatively steady due to loyal customers.
“We've been able to keep business good, but it's definitely not because of the state supporting that,” Rosh told The Herald. “It’s because our community is so good.”
“I don't know what the full bridge rebuild is going to mean for our area,” Schofield said. “But I do think that we are due an explanation for where our state government failed us. This is a failure.”
Schofield also expressed concerns about state transportation funding. “We've decided to invest most of our resources for … automobile (transit), and not so much in alternative modes of transit,” he added, highlighting the reduced funds allocated towards the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
“I just hope that Rhode Islanders don't become passive with regard to this longer term (transportation) story,” Schofield added.
Sanai Rashid was raised in Brooklyn and now lives in Long Island, New York. As an English and History concentrator, she is always looking for a way to amplify stories and histories previously unheard. When she is not writing, you can find her trying new pizza places in Providence or buying another whale stuffed animal.