RIDOT will hold public meetings, legislators say

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“I was happy to hear on our call today that RIDOT has agreed to do public meetings and they’re going to coordinate with the local cities and towns to schedule something in the upcoming weeks,” said state Representative Katherine Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat who had originally called for the meetings.
The meetings, the lawmakers say, are set to take place after the Department of Transportation gets reports back on how to resolve the bridge closure. RIDOT has previously said that’s expected to happen in late February or early March.
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Department of Transportation has agreed to hold public meetings about the Washington Bridge westbound closure, according to multiple state legislators who were briefed by the department Friday.
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Asked about RIDOT aiming to schedule the meetings after it has a sense of what to do to fix the bridge, Kazarian added: “Accountability is key, timelines are key, and the more RIDOT can share, the sooner it can share it with the public, the better.”
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The closure of the bridge that takes Interstate 195 westbound over the Seekonk River on Dec. 11 has led to traffic problems in surrounding towns. Within days, the state opened temporary westbound lanes on the eastbound side of the highway, which is actually a different and newer structure, but the overall reduction in lanes has led to an increase in travel times for commuters and locals alike.
Lawmakers in affected communities have had weekly standing meetings with RIDOT, which will continue, they said. They were briefed by Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti and other officials.
Also Friday, RIDOT told lawmakers it would launch a website dedicated to the bridge closure, which would include more realistic travel time estimates.
“I think it would be very helpful to my constituents,” said state Representative Matthew Dawson, an East Providence Democrat.
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RIDOT also announced Friday that it would test new traffic patterns on Interstate 195, well east of the bridge. Starting Friday night, the department will begin reducing the number of travel lanes on Interstate 195 west starting east of the East Shore Expressway entrance to the highway, from three lanes to two.
“The department has modeled this traffic pattern and the model appears to show that creating a merge east of the East Shore Expressway should reduce travel time,” RIDOT said. “This pattern will allow those using the East Shore Expressway, Pawtucket Avenue and Broadway ramps to merge more easily.”
RIDOT said it would test the new pattern on Friday night and monitor it over the weekend and beginning of the work week, then decide whether to keep it.
Senate Majority Whip Valarie J. Lawson, an East Providence Democrat, said Friday about that news: “I am hoping this new traffic pattern will provide some relief on the bridge and also reduce commuting time in the community.” RIDOT officials believe the new traffic pattern will shave 8 to 10 minutes off the commute on I-195, she said.
With bridge work under way, East Providence has gone from four to two on-ramps onto I-195, and the bridge closure has led to lots of congestion on Pawtucket Avenue and Broadway, Lawson said. She said she has come to a dead stop for at least 15 minutes while driving on Broadway.
Constituents are concerned about the impact the traffic congestion is having on local businesses, Lawson said, and another major concern is the unpredictability of traffic conditions. “You just never know, when you get in car, what the [travel] time will be,“ she said. “It’s like a roll of the dice.”
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Lawson said RIDOT is still expecting to get a report and recommendations from engineers by late February or early March about the bridge’s westbound lanes. One of the potential options is a full rebuild of the bridge.
“Ultimately we need to make sure all the roads and bridges are safe and that the public has confidence in this process,” Lawson said. “I did raise today that when it comes time to make the decisions, we need to share the process with everyone so everyone feels that, whatever the final decision is, it was done with fidelity and with everyone’s best interest in mind.”
Lawson said it’s good to have an open dialogue between legislators and RIDOT. “We have a vehicle to raise our constituents’ concerns and to answer questions,” she said.
Representative Susan Donovan of Bristol, who was also on the call, said the most frustrating thing about the closure for her constituents remains getting to work on time.
“I can’t even imagine being a nurse or a doctor and having to be someplace at a certain time,” she said. “They don’t have any wiggle room.”
Mayor Bob DaSilva was also on Friday’s call. He said he encouraged people on the call to focus on the progress that’s been made, rather than dwell on the negative and, in so doing, make the situation seem worse than it actually is. Some small businesses, like restaurants, are reporting a cratering of lunch crowds because people are afraid they won’t be able to get in and out of East Providence, he said.
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But East Providence is open for business, DaSilva said in an interview after the briefing. Traffic in the past week has improved markedly, probably a combination of changing commuter behaviors and steps to improve traffic flow. It’s still not back to pre-closure levels, but it’s also better than it was in the early days, and should improve even more with the steps RIDOT is taking, DaSilva said.
“I just want people to know that if you want to come here for lunch, for dinner — we’re open,” DaSilva said. “It’s easy in and out. You’re not going to get jammed up.”
This story has been updated with comments from Bob DaSilva.
Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44. Steph Machado can be reached at steph.machado@globe.com. Follow her @StephMachado. Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.

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