Each day, 70,000 vehicles cross the Washington Bridge, headed westward. They fly over India Point Park, skirting the East Side, as they bomb toward Interstate 95. Until recently, few drivers would have noticed that the bridge was under construction.
“We’ve been working on the Washington Bridge for a while now,” says Charles St. Martin, chief public affairs officer for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT). “But most of the work has been taking place underneath the bridge. Now we need to work on top.”
Everything changed on August 20, when Exit 3 was closed for construction. The exit, which is widely known as the “Gano Street Exit,” is a major thoroughfare for East Side commuters. RIDOT is carefully shifting lanes on the bridge and opening a temporary on-ramp at Taunton Avenue, in order to maintain the flow of traffic. According to RIDOT, this ramp should shave two years off total construction time.
“The way the work zone is going to be, it’s not possible for traffic to safely exit at Gano,” says St. Martin. “While it’s going to be disruptive, it probably saves twice as much money – or more – than a replacement [of the bridge].”
What we think of as “the Washington Bridge” has actually been many bridges: a drawbridge used to span the Seekonk River, then a “swing” bridge bearing a trolley line. A modern bridge was built in 1930, but this version was expanded in the latter 20th century, becoming the high-speed highway we know today. Even now, the Washington Bridge is technically divided into two separate structures, the eastbound and westbound. It’s easy for passing drivers to consider them the same bridge, but the westbound side hasn’t received major structural repairs for 20 years.
For the moment, the bridge is considered “structurally deficient,” and Exit 3 will remain closed until fall of 2019. The full rehabilitation is scheduled for completion in 2020, for a total price tag of $22.3 million. Drivers can then rest easy that the city’s most prominent overpass is up to date. When the Exit 3 closure was announced in late July, a map was posted on the RIDOT website to illustrate how traffic would be rerouted.
St. Martin doesn’t take the bridge himself, but he used to. Many years ago, he lived in Warwick and had a job across the bay. “I worked in East Providence the last time we did major work over there,” he says with a knowing chuckle. “I know that bridge very well.”