Bright orange barricades spray-painted with five dripping, black letters — RI DOT — block both sides of the Greystone Sluiceway Bridge on the border of Johnston and North Providence.
Tall grass reaches from the pavement cracks. A long shadow’s cast by a mammoth former mill building.
Johnston and North Providence dog owners march their canines across, weaving through the blockage, crossing from one town to the other.
Meanwhile, the Greystone Social Club stands sentinel, watching the community fade on both sides of the border.
“I’ve noticed an impact on these two neighborhoods,” said Chris Gosetti, President of the Greystone Social Club, as he bent over at the waist trying to peek underneath the closed crossing. “We never looked at this as two separate towns. It’s always been one neighborhood.”
Gosetti, a Johnston native, has been on a mission to reopen the Greystone Bridge. He has support from residents and elected officials in both Johnston and North Providence.
“That bridge has not only been an access way for businesses from both towns, to go back and forth, but for people to get through,” Gosetti told Johnston Town Council on May 8. “The Route 44 traffic now, with that bridge being closed, is horrendous. If you’ve ever been on 44 during rush hour, you will not get out of line to get a coffee. You will not get out of line to stop at Tony’s to get a grinder. It will take you a half hour to get back into line.”
The state proposed repairing the bridge and opening the crossing to pedestrians and bicycles, but not vehicle traffic. Gosetti, and many others, argue that plan makes little sense. He also insists Route 44 is ready to burst, and reopening the Greystone Bridge would provide a much-needed pressure-release valve.
“Route 44 has become a nightmare,” Gosetti said. “People don’t even want to drive down that road anymore.”
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. drafted a letter to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) urging action at the site.
“I write this letter to express my deep concern and dissatisfaction with the current proposed plan for the Greystone Avenue Bridge,” Polisena wrote. “Under the current plan the state would rebuild the bridge but not in its current form. Instead their new proposal is for a hybrid bicycle/pedestrian bridge with one-lane vehicle, gated off to public vehicles with access for emergency vehicles only. Then, upon construction of this bridge closed off to public vehicles, the state would pass along the maintenance of the bridge to both North Providence and Johnston.”
Polisena echoes his father, former Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, in his refusal to use town funds to maintain a bridge taxpayers will not be permitted to drive across.
“While I cannot speak for North Providence, I can certainly speak for Johnston,” Polisena wrote. “Under no circumstances will I use taxpayer money to maintain a bridge that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers will not use. Moreover, after speaking with both the Johnston Fire Chief and Police Chief, it is my understanding that this bridge was used so infrequently by emergency vehicles for mutual aid, it presents no danger to public safety if unavailable for their use.”
Gosetti argues effectively that if the state can build a bridge strong enough to support the weight of fire trucks, it should be able to build a structure that can carry regular passenger vehicle traffic for a similar price tag.
Polisena asked RIDOT to keep its word.
“Instead, I propose the state keeps their commitment to the Greystone area and rebuilds the bridge for its previous use prior to closure, which is public vehicle access,” he wrote. “Between the federal and state governments, with the hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure money available, I see no reason why the state cannot free up a nominal amount of this infrastructure funding to build a two-lane bridge for public vehicle access. If the state decides to change their plan and make the bridge open for public vehicle access, I will step up and commit our town’s resources to maintain the bridge. I stand ready to work with any elected official or citizen who wishes to see a new plan of a public vehicle access bridge come to fruition.”
No Budge on Bridge
So far, neither town nor Gosetti has been able to convince the state’s Department of Transportation that the bridge should be replaced and reopened to vehicle traffic.
“The Greystone Sluiceway Bridge is structurally deficient,” according to Peter Alviti Jr., RIDOT Director since February 2015. “In July 2020 the Department closed the bridge because it could no longer safely carry vehicular traffic. Traffic engineers determined the bridge was primarily used as a cut-through with very little traffic and the detour around the bridge only amounts to a few minutes of travel time.”
Asked for an update on the bridge, Alviti provided a written statement via RI DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin III.
“The diversion route around the bridge does not pose a safety problem for police, fire, or emergency services,” Alviti wrote. “I agree with ... Mayor Polisena when he says that ‘this bridge was used so infrequently by emergency vehicles for mutual aid, it presents no danger to public safety if unavailable for their use.’”
According to RIDOT, in February 2022, the agency “allocated funds in its 10-year plan to demolish the bridge,” but “the traffic volumes and the absence of public safety issues at the bridge do not justify an investment of $10-20 million to replace the bridge.”
Estimates for bridge replacement have fluctuated from an initial $2 million to more than $28 million.
In July 2020, RIDOT issued a travel advisory following the bridge closure on the “Johnston/North Providence line,” enacted “to protect public safety after dozens of overweight trucks (were) observed crossing the posted bridge.” The bridge had a 3-ton weight limit.
Busy or not?
“On a day in late May, the Department conducted a count and witnessed nearly 100 overweight vehicles crossing the bridge,” the agency reported in 2020. “During other spot inspections, RIDOT observed similar numbers of trucks over the 3-ton weight limit.”
Police from both Johnston and North Providence “patrolled the bridge over a two-week (period in 2020) and gave out 66 citations and 18 warnings,” according to RIDOT. “Approximately one week after the patrols ended, RIDOT did another one-day survey and observed 25 overweight vehicles crossing the bridge.”
At the time, RIDOT said the structure was “currently funded for $2 million for reconstruction in 2022.”
“Based on the condition of the bridge and the number and type of overweight vehicles that continue to ignore the posting signs and pass over the bridge, RIDOT decided to close the bridge until it can be replaced,” according to the travel advisory.
The department describes the bridge as a now 73-year-old timber structure, which formerly carried “approximately 3,000 vehicles per day on Greystone Avenue over the Woonasquatucket River, between Riverside Avenue in Johnston and Waterman Avenue/Route 104 in North Providence.”
Motorists were instructed to “follow a detour using Waterman Avenue and Putnam Pike (Route 44).”
“RIDOT has had conversations with both Johnston and North Providence about constructing a pedestrian bridge as far back as 2020,” Alviti wrote in his prepared statement. “In May 2022, the towns again discussed the desire for a pedestrian bridge that would allow pedestrian access to Cricket Field, and RIDOT adjusted its 10-year plan to include the pedestrian bridge option.”
According to Alviti, the agency “met with the towns again in September 2022 and the towns requested a pedestrian bridge that could also accommodate emergency vehicle access.”
“If constructed, the two towns would take over ownership and maintenance of the bridge,” Alviti reiterated. “RIDOT provided operation and maintenance estimates and related agreements for the town councils in North Providence and Johnston to act upon. They have not. RIDOT will now proceed to demolish the bridge as a matter of public safety.”
Alviti confirmed receipt of Polisena’s letter.
“I also agree with Mayor Polisena’s viewpoint when he says, ‘Under no circumstances will I use taxpayer money to maintain a bridge that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers will not use,’” Alviti replied. “Likewise, it is not reasonable for the taxpayers of the state to pay for construction of a bridge that so few Rhode Island residents would use.”
Earlier this week, Polisena Jr. was still waiting for a response from RIDOT.
“I haven’t heard anything from DOT yet,” Polisena wrote Tuesday morning. “It’s very disappointing that the Johnston and North Providence Town Councils, all local state legislators in that area, and myself are all in favor of just rebuilding the bridge back to the way it was previously, yet the state remains silent.”
North Providence Mayor Charles A. Lombardi did not return a call for comment by deadline.
In a February report published in the North Providence Valley Breeze, Lombardi seemed persuaded by RIDOT.
“I don’t think (a full replacement) would be a wise expenditure,” Lombardi told the Breeze.
Polisena reviewed Alviti’s response and issued a reply.
“The Governor (Dan McKee) and Director need to take full responsibility for deliberately depriving the residents of Johnston and North Providence from a bridge we all use,” Polisena wrote on Tuesday. “I don’t know how else to express that we, the residents and all local elected officials, are asking for the bridge to be reopened as the way it was before. When voting for their next Governor, I would urge the residents of Johnston and North Providence to keep the state's words in mind, that they are considered to be ‘too few’ to matter to the Governor and his team. I have faith they will respond accordingly.”
Gosetti wore a Greystone Social Club polo shirt; the organization’s logo embroidered over his heart.
The club still has “roughly 400 members and family members from Johnston and the surrounding areas,” Gosetti told Johnston Town Council earlier this month.
Johnston State Rep. Deborah Fellela attended the meeting and pledged her support.
Meanwhile, Sam Chebbo has been struggling to lure business back to his BMC-Sunoco gas station at 135 Putnam Pike.
When the nearby Greystone Bridge closed in 2020, he says a quarter of his customers disappeared.
“It took away about 20 to 25 percent of my business,” Chebbo said earlier this week. “Prior to the pandemic, the numbers were about 20-25 percent higher than when we reopened after the pandemic. The traffic on Route 44 is unbelievable. It’s horrible trying to go in; horrible trying to get out. Going in and out is a hassle.”
Chebbo hopes both towns and the state can agree on a plan to reopen the historic gateway between Johnston and North Providence.
“It would be good for business,” Chebbo said. “It would be good for traffic. It would make the flow on 44 a little bit smoother.”
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here