The video was the clincher.
It was barely a minute-long clip, but the scene of a submerged Lakeshore Drive with water rushing over it effectively illustrated how ineffective the Buckeye Brook culvert can be.
Yet some members of the City Council had reservations about the Rhode Island Airport Corporation’s (RIAC) offer to replace the culvert at no cost to the city.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla was cautious. He pointed out that RIAC’s request to list the culvert’s replacement as part of a program to offset wetlands lost from improved runway safety areas failed to include drawings as indicated. He likened the situation to other instances where RIAC had not fully disclosed what it was doing at the airport.
And, although he acknowledged he is new to the council and does not have the history of working with RIAC, Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur raised issues, too.
“It’s odd that the property owner would grant [permission] without seeing the drawings. Do we actually have plans?” Merolla asked.
Peter Frazier, legal counsel for RIAC, explained that the city’s consent is needed for RIAC to move ahead with its wetlands application with the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The plan calls for the extension of the safety area at both ends of Runway 16-34. EMAS, or engineered mass arresting system, a roll-off area of concrete blocks engineered to crush under the weight of an aircraft to slow it down, will be used at both ends of the runway. The work on the end of the runway closest to Post Road is scheduled first, with the east end near Buckeye Brook scheduled for next year.
To offset the 2.6 acres of wetlands affected, RIAC is proposing a mitigation program that would reform some former fill near the brook, thereby extending the wetlands, and the installation of a new and larger Lakeshore Drive culvert. The three existing 30-inch pipes would be replaced with a system four times larger, said Frazier. The projected $600,000 cost of the project would be borne by RIAC.
Frazier stressed that by granting RIAC permission to include the city culvert on the application, the city wasn’t losing its rights to question or contest the application when considered by DEM.
“This is a good example of putting the olive branch out to the legislative body,” Ward 7 Councilman Charles “CJ” Donovan said.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella Wilkinson agreed. She said RIAC went “the extra mile,” and in response to Merolla’s reference to a prior strained relationship with RIAC, said, “that is in the past and this is a new day.”
But Ladouceur had concerns. He asked about federal funding of the project and whether that might somehow affect the city. There were also questions about maintenance and had the city solicitor been consulted.
“I’ve been on top of this and I’ve been following up with [city] planning,” Vella-Wilkinson fired back.
Referencing an earlier action allowing two cuts in a recently repaved road so a handicapped veteran could replace his costly oil-heating system with natural gas, a request made by Merolla and supported by Ladouceur, Vella-Wilkinson said an enlarged culvert would improve conditions for hundreds of people. Lakeshore Drive is the only access and egress to the neighborhood sandwiched between the airport and Warwick Pond.
“What do we do?” she asked. “The city doesn’t have that kind of money. This is a safety and quality of life issue to the residents of Ward 3.”
“At the point we have the application, that’s when we can object and we have the opportunity to vote,” observed Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon.
Vella-Wilkinson said she is “very passionate” about the issue and had sought to address the Lakeshore Drive flooding for a long time.
Her plea was heard. By a vote of 9-0, the council agreed to grant RIAC permission to include the culvert as part of its application.
Assuming approval of the project, Frazier said one lane of passage would be kept open at all times during construction. The work would most likely be done next July, following the spring herring run.