More and more questions on Washington Bridge

Posted 2/14/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: During an address last week to the Northern RI Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Dan McKee suggested the worst traffic fallout from the Washington Bridge is in the past. “We have to …

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More and more questions on Washington Bridge


STORY OF THE WEEK: During an address last week to the Northern RI Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Dan McKee suggested the worst traffic fallout from the Washington Bridge is in the past. “We have to be really honest about where we are if we want our businesses to do well,” the governor said, per The Woonsocket Call. But I-195 once again resembled a parking lot for part of Thursday morning, due to an accident. Social media in RI lit up with howls of frustration. One motorist said it took him 80 minutes to get from Warwick to East Providence. Others described how traffic typically intensifies at peak times later in the week. Yet Taunton Avenue in EP, which feeds into I-195, was easy to navigate at mid-day Wednesday. The sheer unpredictability of travel conditions, which vary day by day and hour by hour, is a central aspect of this crisis, and probably the most aggravating part for Rhode Islanders. (RIDOT has unveiled travel time charts, in an attempt to address this.) Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt pledged help in trying to mitigate the fallout, even if his visit underscored the heightened prospect of a years-long project to replace the westbound George Washington bridge. If that’s the case, the saga will remain a backdrop in the run-up to the 2026 race for governor. For now, state lawmakers  channeled  Rhode Islanders’ frustration when the House and Senate Oversight committees stage a joint hearing at the State House on Monday. The witness list is led by RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, along with Joseph Almond, senior deputy chief of staff for Gov. Dan McKee, and a representative of one of the state’s bridge contractors, VHB Engineering.

SPOTTED: Gov. McKee and Helena Foulkes were among those at a recent fundraiser at Ladder 133 in Providence for state Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Cumberland), in a possible preview of the 2026 Democratic primary for governor.

THE RHODE ISLAND CONNECTION: Aaron Jacobs, who as a Brown University student cut his political teeth as an intern for Devin “Short Pants” Driscoll on Barack Obama’s Rhode Island campaign in 2012, is leading Joe Biden’s run this year in New Hampshire. Jacobs was a longtime aide for U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan of NH. Another intern from the 2012 Obama team in RI, Laura O’Neill of Providence College, was Biden’s Granite State director in 2020 and now works as director of public engagement or U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson of Cumberland joined me on Political Roundtable this week. Some key excerpts:

**Pearson said he does not expect to use his ex officio capacity to participate in the joint Oversight hearing on Monday. Asked if he still has confidence in RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, following a Globe report in which union officials accuse Alviti of fostering a toxic work environment. Pearson said, “I want to look forward to what comes out in the hearings and certainly I think the hearings will either demonstrate the facts on that issue that can inform us.”

**The Senate plans to unveil a legislative package in coming weeks “that we believe will meaningfully improve the healthcare system of Rhode Island.”

**Pearson said he believes there’s a path to win Senate support on a bill promoting the construction of accessible dwelling units (ADUs), aka granny flats, the only measure in a 14-bill package backed last year by House Speaker Joe Shekarchi that did not win Senate support. Past opposition was based, he said, on how “senators had concerns around the language in the bill where it allows basically a by-right [approval], designed to create ADUs, and the sizes of those ADUs that by right you would have the ability to build.”

**Judging by the number of cosponsors, momentum suggests the Senate will pass a bill requiring the safe storage of guns.

THE COSTCO CHRONICLES: Warwick City Council President Steve McAllister made a bit of a boss move last week by revealing that he has invited Costco to open a location there. This follows reports that Costco’s plans for Cranston are on hold for now. As part of a regular email update, McAllister said he has offered to hold a community meeting so people can hear what Costco is looking for in a Rhode Island location. While Americans are known for their propensity to buy massive quantities of stuff at wholesale clubs, McAllister’s initiative, coming on the heels of a Crowne Plaza fundraiser co-hosted last year by Gov. McKee and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, suggests an interest in one day seeking higher office.

LIFE SCIENCES: Just as Rhode Island is gearing up with high hopes for its Life Sciences Hub, Raleigh, North Carolina, is emerging as what The Boston Globe calls “a looming threat to Greater Boston’s biotech dominance.” Neil Steinberg, chair of RI’s new life sciences agency, tells me via email he still believes that the Hub, if done properly, could have a positive economic effect for decades to come, potentially making for a research industry triangle with Boston and Worcester: “The seeds already exist here in Rhode Island with the sector positioned for growth over the long term with new science such as RNA research. We already have an established life science sector here with a density of resources that we can build on. This includes major companies like Amgen and Vertex, the medical device incubator NEMIC and numerous early-stage companies. How to realize its full potential? Better collaboration, more convening and expediting opportunities will be the Hub’s priorities. Innovation from research at Brown and URI, Lifespan and CNE is growing and we need to better support tech-transfers that will initiate and support new companies. For example, while the significant lack of commercial wet lab space here is currently a challenge, it’s also an opportunity for the Hub to provide meaningful, concrete support going forward, as it was designed to do. Speaker Shekarchi has noted that it will take industry, government and academia working together to make the Rhode Island Life Science Hub the success it can be. Investments like the new state health lab will include lab space along with major new life science facilities and investments by colleges and universities will also be key to growing the sector. Growing the workforce presents real opportunities, too.”

CRANSTON STUFF: Republican-turned-Democrat Robert Ferri joined the race for mayor this week. Ward 5 Councilor Chris Paplauskas, a Republican, tells me it’s too soon to say if he will pursue a run for the seat being vacated by state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who is challenging Mayor Ken Hopkins. One possible factor is how the district represented by Fenton-Fung includes just a tiny bit of Paplauskas’ council ward. Democrat Maria Bucci, who was defeated by Hopkins in 2020, is running for the rep seat held by Fenton-Fung.

HOUSING: How did Burrillville, the rural town in northwest Rhode Island, crack the code to emerge as one of the state’s municipal leaders in creating affordable housing? Via my colleague Alex Nunes: “Burrillville didn't become an outlier by accident. ‘We were trying to employ, kind of, a European growth model, growth style,’ said Tom Kravitz, who worked as Burrillville’s town planner from 2001 to 2016. Kravitz said the town did a lot of strategic thinking in the run up to the 2008 financial crash, when home prices were high, like they are now. Burrillville steered new development and foot traffic to the historic villages of Pascoag, where more people could spur business activity, and Harrissville, where the town was locating a new public library. Town officials loosened zoning requirements where they wanted development and blocked projects in other areas. In one case, they convinced a property owner who had a proposal they didn’t like to sell the land to the town to connect a bike path between Pascoag and Harrisville. ‘I look back – we were doing it selfishly to try to really generate little dense pockets, again, around these villages where we wanted people to live, because we wanted a small restaurant to take root here or there. So we wanted it to be walkable,’ Kravitz said. ‘Location, again, was number one for us. Affordability kind of came in after.’”

OPEN RECORDS: Supporters of more government transparency met with the governor’s office and law enforcement in an attempt to find common ground on changes to Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act. The ensuing legislation introduced by Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) and Rep. Pat Serpa (D-West Warwick) has 47 changes from the last APRA update more than a decade ago. While the Washington Bridge story underscores the importance of public records – and the hurdles sometimes faced by media organizations in reporting on public matters – the outlook for the bills remains unclear.


**Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, used a Washington Post op-ed last week to make the case that private equity is bad for healthcare. The effect of private equity has been seen in both RI and Massachusetts.

**Attorney General Peter Neronha this week flagged on X data showing that the median ER wait time in Rhode Island is 241 minutes, placing us 49th among 50 states. “So next time someone tells you who cares if a hospital closes, tell them you do,” Neronha added.


**My colleague Lynn Arditi explains part of the challenge in finding a new permanent head of the state Department of Health, a post filled with acting leadership since 2022: Gov. McKee “is asking state lawmakers for permission to negotiate a higher salary for the job of state health director, which currently pays less than the average earnings of a first-year medical school graduate.”

ON THE MOVE: Former RI Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a 2022 candidate for governor, has a new gig, as the first president/CEO of the Puerto Rico Green Energy Trust. “I am fully committed to making Puerto Rico more energy efficient, resilient, and environmentally friendly,” said Gorbea in a statement. “It is an honor to return to my native Puerto Rico and lead the Green Energy Trust's efforts to ensure greater economic opportunities and a better quality of life for Puerto Ricans with a green energy future. I am aware that I am now a part of a growing number of government, business, and the civil society efforts in Puerto Rico that are contributing to this vital task. The Puerto Rico Green Energy Trust provides a unique opportunity to leverage funds into green energy projects and build upon Puerto Rico's wealth of local resources, including its people, universities, and geography so that we can make the shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050,”

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

State Rep. JOSE BATISTA (D-PROVIDENCE): “The development of social media and body-worn cameras in the 2020s have done for police misconduct what the advent of television in the 1960s did for the Vietnam War — it exposed Americans to the ugly truth of what is really happening and gave us an opportunity to coalesce and call for it to end. Over the past four years in particular, Rhode Islanders have been exposed to gruesome and unhinged examples of police misconduct caught on camera for everyone to see. Instead of promoting swift discipline and deterrent from committing these heinous acts again, our current Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) regime has instead promoted a “wait and see” approach that has had disastrous results for Rhode Island taxpayers. Indeed, Rhode Island cities and towns have, only in the past year, shelled out $123,000 to an officer who was acquitted of shooting an unarmed 18-year-old while off-duty, $500,000 to an officer terminated for engaging in domestic violence and $11 million to a victim of police misconduct in Providence. These critical taxpayer dollars are desperately needed to fund our schools, hospitals and fix our bridges, not reward heinous misconduct. As we approach reform, we must rise to the occasion and not shrink to the comforts of ‘that's the way we've always done it.’ We must use this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform LEOBOR in a way that keeps Rhode Islanders safe.”

STEVE FRIAS, Cranston historian and RI GOP National Committeeman:

“Once again, the R.I. House of Representatives is ready to pass an ADU bill. The bill requires municipalities to allow ADUs on non-owner-occupied properties. If this bill becomes law, it could negatively impact single-family suburban neighborhoods, and will do little to lower the cost of housing.  Under this bill, investors will be able to purchase single-family homes, build an ADU, and then turn the property into two-family rental housing. Absentee landlords will crop up in our suburban neighborhoods. When an absentee landlord owns a property, there is a greater risk that the property will be neglected. Just this past week at the Cranston Planning Commission, I heard residents complain about how an absentee landlord neglected his property and negatively impacted their neighborhood. To avoid these type of problems, other New England states wisely limited ADUs to owner-occupied properties. Furthermore, a 2018 academic study, which analyzed the impact of ADUs in California, determined, ‘There is no evidence yet to suggest that-on their own-more frequent ADU applications are linked to increases in housing affordability.’ Hopefully, the R.I. Senate will put the interests of resident homeowners ahead of real estate developers.”

State Rep. JENNIFER STEWART (D-Pawtucket): “Having one’s life upended by the Washington Bridge closure and having one’s life changed by police violence and misconduct may seem unrelated at first, but they draw our attention to the experiences of ordinary people. If we allow the experiences of ordinary people in each of those situations to guide our policy choices, I know we can create something better than existed before that moves us closer to the equitable society we aspire to be. To hear that people who used to spend an hour commuting to work or school and now spend more than two hours, shouldn’t move us to settle for getting the commute back down to an hour. It should move us to ask how we can become less dependent on driving and make RIPTA a viable option for people. Similarly, if we listen to what Jennifer Rourke, Lisa Vincent, and Suzette Cook have shared about participating in LEOBOR as people who experienced police violence, we shouldn’t settle for adjusting procedures. We should rethink the entire thing and create true police accountability.”

KICKER: Kentucky’s bourbon industry continues to smash records, with an estimated $9 billion economic impact on the Bluegrass State. Shot: Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear won elections piloted in 2019 and 2023 by Eric Hyers, a familiar face from his past campaign work for David Cicilline and Gina Raimondo. Chaser: Beshear, while celebrating the bourbon windfall, gave a shout-out to Raimondo, now U.S. Commerce secretary, for her help in opposing a bourbon tariff.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@thepublicsradio.org.

politics, Donnis, op-ed


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