Talking Politics

The bridge’s fate is finalized, and the state’s aggravation continues

By Ian Donnis
Posted 3/19/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Dan McKee made official on Thursday what many suspected: the westbound Washington Bridge is so riddled with structural flaws that it needs to be demolished and replaced , at …

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Talking Politics

The bridge’s fate is finalized, and the state’s aggravation continues


STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Dan McKee made official on Thursday what many suspected: the westbound Washington Bridge is so riddled with structural flaws that it needs to be demolished and replaced, at an estimated cost of up to $300 million. After initially downplaying the effect on longer travel times caused by the bridge closing, McKee struck a more empathetic note while vowing to determine accountability for what went wrong. The precise reason for why the westbound bridge got into such bad shape amid RhodeWorks, the statewide infrastructure program launched in 2016, remains unclear. McKee said he still has confidence in RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, who defended his record based on overall improvement in bridges around the state.

On the plus side, Rhode Island may have averted a tragedy by moving quickly to close the bridge in December. But the failure of the westbound bridge remains an aggravation for motorists and small businesses in the Providence area and beyond, and even with the federal government expected to pick up much of the cost, the need to spend tens of millions on the project will strain resources during a renewed era of red ink in the state budget.

As House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said in a joint statement, “We caution that the costs cited [Thursday] are only estimates, and as we have seen in so many projects, construction costs have often exceeded original estimates.”

FALLOUT: East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva, an ally of Gov. McKee, said the news about replacing the bridge brings some certainty to an uncertain situation, making it possible to do some long-term planning. “The biggest concern I’ve been hearing all along from people is the unknown,” he said during last Thursday’s news conference. Providence Mayor Brett Smiley cited a menu of options aimed at enhancing traffic while the bridge gets replaced. Meanwhile, on Tuesday — the same day that U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Butttigieg was slated to visit Rhode Island — local businesses were invited to sound off during a meeting of the East Providence City Council. The state is forging ahead with a plan, scheduled for completion next month, that will expand from two to three the number of bypass lanes in each direction on the eastbound Washington Bridge. The hope is that that will reduce congestion. Regardless, the effect of the bridge closing varies day by day, person by person, and many Rhode Islanders have paid a cost in squandered time and lost business.

HEALTHCARE FIGHT: The debate over the future of CharterCARE Health Partners — mostly Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence — is set to heat up Tuesday, with the first of two public hearings on the proposed purchase of CharterCARE by the Centurion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Atlanta.

Here’s some exclusive info ahead of that.

• The state Department of Health, which shares responsibility with the Office of Attorney General for approving or rejecting Centurion’s offer, is taking a close look at the proposed transaction. A Feb. 28 letter sent by DOH to Centurion’s lawyer, a copy of which was obtained by The Public’s Radio, cited five initial areas of concern, including how “Centurion’s experience in the healthcare industry involves only real estate-based transactions” and how part of Centurion’s regulatory application “lacks substantive information to demonstrate how the existing hospitals will transition their operations into a stand-alone self-sustaining healthcare system.”

• North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi tells me he will oppose the deal if it does not include a plan to make taxpayers in his communities whole for PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) revenue that could be lost with a change in ownership of the hospitals. As it stands, annual PILOT revenue from CharterCARE to North Providence is set to climb in 2025 to $783,000, from the current $625,000, and Lombardi said he’s concerned about the effect if nonprofit Centurion takes over CharterCARE.

• Representatives of Centurion and United Nurses and Allied Professionals, which represents almost 1,000 workers at the two hospitals, have been pressing their case with various elected officials. Here’s some comment on where they stand: 

Gov. McKee: “As governor, my objective is to protect Rhode Island’s health care system and preserve patient access to critical services. The Rhode Island Department of Health has a statutory regulatory role in reviewing and approving hospital conversions like this. It is in the best interest of the Rhode Island people that we protect the integrity of that process and allow the department to complete its review.”

Speaker Shekarchi: “I have met with representatives from Centurion and UNAP, as well as Attorney General Neronha. I am deeply concerned about the future of healthcare and hospitals and I am monitoring the issue closely. The General Assembly has no official role in the process, but I trust that the Attorney General and the Department of Health will make the right decision in the best interest of the people of Rhode Island.”

President Ruggerio: “I am cautiously optimistic about the proposed sale of CharterCARE to the nonprofit Centurion Foundation. I have been among those raising alarms about the financial condition of Fatima and Roger Williams under their current, for-profit ownership group, calling for an attorney general investigation into their finances as far back as 2017. While I caution that this conversion still needs to undergo the rigorous review of regulators at the Department of Health and Attorney General’s office, I am pleased with the opportunity to potentially stabilize and strengthen these vital community hospitals.

“However, I want to emphasize again the importance of the thorough review process required through the Hospital Conversion Act. Working with the attorney general, I have been proud to sponsor and support laws that further strengthen the tools regulators have when conducting these reviews. UNAP has raised concerns, particularly with regard to business model, lack of capital, and lack of experience, which need to be thoroughly considered as part of the regulatory review process. I look forward to a thorough review by the Attorney General and RIDOH that takes these concerns into account.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Former U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin gave virtual testimony this week against a bill meant to speed the repair of wheelchairs in Connecticut. That was noteworthy since, as Langevin noted, he’s used a wheelchair for more than 40 years. The former rep said his opposition was based on practicality since, he said, there isn’t adequate capacity to meet a quick turn-around time for repairs. However, Langevin also serves on the board of a leading wheelchair manufacturer (which he disclosed as part of his testimony) and that field, like many others, has felt the impact of private equity, blamed by critics for exacerbating the situation.

CITY HAUL: Here’s are some highlights from Mayor Smiley’s interview with me this week on Political Roundtable:

Is the “8-Law” statute a giveaway for rich developers at the expense of small landlords? “This is one of these examples that when the bill was written and for decades when it was used, it was used in the way it was intended, which was a benefit to affordable housing developers for preferential tax treatment and traditionally had been used in projects that were entirely affordable. And then a couple of private developers realized that they could qualify for this too without having to make the entire project affordable. So now we have private developers where, say, 20 percent of the units might be affordable, and yet 100 percent of the project receives this tax benefit. And so this loophole, as I call it, has been discovered and it needs to be closed. And so the city of Providence, under my leadership, has a proposal to do that. And I hope that the state legislature passes it this year.”

Why not allow people to stroll with an open container when PVDFest returns downtown in September? “The problem is that, I think, most people are responsible, but all it takes is one. That’s not, you know, I take public safety very seriously. We want everyone to have a safe, fun experience at PVD Fest. We also want to make sure that families and people of all ages can enjoy this festival. And so there’ll be, in this year’s PVD Fest, there’ll be plenty of places to get a drink and it’ll be easy to both enjoy and listen to the performances while enjoying an adult beverage, if that’s what you’re here to do. But you’ll have to finish that drink at the location where you are before you move on to your next stop.”

Does he have a different vision for the “Scrapalachian Trail” on Atwells Avenue? “The fact that we have a deep water port is an incredible economic asset and should be used to its fullest. And so there are still great opportunities in water dependent uses, including but not limited to the offshore wind industry, that will create good jobs, that will help us meet our climate challenges, and that add more economic value than, for example, this scrapyard that we’ve just sent the cease and desist order to. And so I don’t support some of the old plans that showed either casinos or hotels on the waterfront. I do think we should be taking advantage of the economic asset, which is that port and that channel. But I’m looking for a higher, better use than what we see in some of these vacant or polluting sites.”

NEW BREEZE: The waters off Rhode Island might be the equivalent of “the Saudi Arabia of wind,” as former Gov. Don Carcieri once said. And the Ocean State got the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. Now, though, New York is home to America’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm. As former ProJo reporter Phil Marcelo observed on FKA Twitter: “MA spent years (decades?) mired in litigation over turbines. Little Rhody did something well, little. But Long Island got there first. Go figure.”

LOOKING BACK: The week ahead marks the 10th anniversary of the time when state and federal investigators swarmed the Statehouse, signaling the fall of Gordon Fox, who rose from the hardscrabble streets of Mount Hope to win the lofty perch of the speaker’s office. Fox was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of charges of bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion. His resignation from public office set off a fight for the speakership, with Fox’s majority leader, Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston, outpacing then-Rep. Michael Marcello of Scituate. Mattiello won the vote in the House chamber on March 25, 2014, two days after a closed caucus at the Providence Marriott and four days after the raid on Fox’s office and East Side home. Mattiello, now a lobbyist, ushered in an initial era of good feeling, but attracted more opposition over time, and lost his representative seat in 2020 to Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, now a candidate for mayor in Cranston. 

IN MEMORIAM: We were among those saddened by the passing of Ron St. Pierre. May he rest in peace.

ON THE RISE: Melissa DuBose, nominated as a state district court judge by Gov. Raimondo in 2018, continues on her history-making path after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate this week, 51-47, as a U.S. District Court judge in Providence. DuBose will take on her new role when Judge Wiliam Smith moves to senior status in January.

COASTAL ACCESS: The different rules regarding parking in Westerly, baked on proximity to the beach, tell a tale of two cities and are seen by some as a form of bigotry, as my colleague Alex Nunes reports.

KICKER: My colleague James Baumgartner talks with Sky Kim, a James Beard semifinalist who brings locally inspired Korean cuisine to Gift Horse in Providence. Like many people, she traces her love of food to cooking by a favorite grandma: “So what I do here, I twist a little bit, but I don’t touch the base. If I touch the base, it’s gonna ruin the whole thing.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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