Frustration, accusations as DOT faces Bristol business leaders

By Kristen Ray
Posted 5/22/19

For the first half-hour they sat patiently, listening to a Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) presentation about the Silver Creek bridge project. Yet after weeks of waiting, the voices …

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Frustration, accusations as DOT faces Bristol business leaders


For the first half-hour they sat patiently, listening to a Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) presentation about the Silver Creek bridge project. Yet after weeks of waiting, the voices of the Bristol business community could not be contained for long, as they gathered inside the Bristol Maritime Center on Tuesday, May 21.

Joined by state representatives, town officials and private citizens, the business owners’ first direct meeting with members from the DOT was both informative and controversial, passionate and tense. 

While a number of businesses were brought into the loop late last year, many others have only more recently gotten wind of the DOT’s plans for the bridge’s demolition and reconstruction. Since then, shop owners throughout town have been critical of the project’s projected timeline —calling for a full closure of the structure for six to eight weeks in July and August of 2020 — in addition to the lack of input they feel they have been given.

“We’ve been told, as businesses, that our needs come last,” said the Beehive’s Jen Cavallaro.

Many fear for their livelihood next summer, with construction taking place two out of the three months typically relied upon in order to financially sustain them all year long. On behalf of numerous downtown businesses, Ms. Cavallaro advocated for a change in the schedule, urging the DOT to consider a September and October closure instead — a proposition Project Manager Robens Innocent immediately shot down, listing public safety, the parade and major stakeholders Verizon and National Grid as just a few of the reasons why.

“We’ve played all the scenarios; we’ve played them,” reiterated Mr. Innocent.

When it became clear that business owners were not looking to back down from the notion, however, Town Administrator Steven Contente cut in, trying to back up Mr. Innocent’s reasoning by addressing the public safety aspect.

“Knowing that we have 1,000 children downtown, we need to be realistic, and let’s be a little less self-centered,” he implored.

Instantly, the room was filled with anger and resentment, but Mr. Contente stood by his statement. Ensuring the safety of students and allowing the town’s volunteer fire department and police officers to easily navigate the roads, he said, is “paramount” and should be highly prioritized.

It was a stance many residents and business owners continued to contest throughout the duration of the meeting. The way the Beach House’s Marianthy Barakos saw it, restaurants, businesses and the people they employ should be considered just as heavily.

“I found his comment to be arrogant, and ignorant and small-minded,” Ms. Barakos stated. “And I think we’re not looking at the big picture.”

Looking for alternatives

The timing was not the only part of the project debated. The need for a bridge closure at all was also hotly contested.

Following Mr. Contente’s comments, both business owners and residents alike were riled up, fighting to fire questions and complaints the DOT’s way. Fourth of July Chief Marshal Jim Farley kept talking over Mr. Innocent, driving home how problematic traffic will be and questioning why they could not instead build a temporary bridge.

Geologist Patrick Barosh echoed his sentiments, claiming there were a number of unique ways the DOT could go about solving the problem.

“There is nothing innovative about this plan,” he declared.

Yet both Mr. Innocent and Project Manager Steven Soderlund maintained that they had run out of options, having already considered and debunked each of those theories themselves. Whether it was because of design, funding or time constraints, every option was ruled out for a reason, and they were doing the best with what they had.

“We need the faith of you guys to put into our expertise,” pleaded Mr. Innocent.

In an attempt to ease anxiety that construction will be prolonged much longer than the anticipated six to eight weeks in July and August of next year, Mr. Innocent said DOT added an incentive clause to add pressure to the contractor to adhere to the timeline; otherwise, for every day construction is continued past Aug. 31, 2020, $10,000 will be lost.

“We did that based on everything you said,” Mr. Innocent emphasized. “We listen. It may not look like we do, but we do.”

While he had the vote of confidence from some members in the audience — including Rep. June Speakman, who had a successful experience collaborating with the DOT on the ‘White Church’ bridge project in Barrington several years ago — others still felt as if the DOT had more to prove.

“You’ve got fiascos all over the state,” Mr. Farley accused. “… the track record’s just not there that you’re going to get things done.”

Asking for help

With it becoming increasingly clear that both the schedule and logistics behind the Silver Creek Bridge project were largely inflexible, several in the audience shifted their attention toward how the DOT can help businesses survive through the summer of 2020.

Town Councilor Aaron Ley wanted to see Bristol added to the pilot ferry service; Paper, Packaging and Panache’s Linda Arruda wanted to have ample input into the language and location of signage, as well as assurance that no construction would be taking place additionally on the Mt. Hope Bridge over the next two summers. Ms. Cavallaro spoke for many when she wanted guaranteed the town’s help in providing marketing and public relations support.

“The business owners are going to expect financial support for a massive PR campaign,” said Ms. Cavallaro.

They were all issues that the DOT felt confident they could address and support, with Assistant Director for Business Outreach David Walsh promising that his line will remain open throughout the project. The DOT, he said, will continue to work heavily with Economic Development Coordinator Chris Vitale and business leaders as they provide sharable resources and figure out what seems to work and what doesn’t along the way.

Should a business experience a negative financial impact as a result of the roadwork, he pointed them toward the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, a Providence-based economic development group offering information on potential resources and services available.

Though by the end of the two-hour long meeting every voice that had wanted to be heard was heard by the DOT, some business owners and residents could not help but leave the Maritime Center feeling a lack of empathy from their own town leaders and being disgruntled with the current state of the Silver Creek Bridge project.

Said Chip Cavallaro to a round of applause: “I’m grateful that I have one tool left in my bag in making this project advance in a different direction, and that’s my vote in the next election cycle.”

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