Drivers could see billboard criticizing Washington Bridge handling for years

If drivers on Interstate 195 ever forget that the shutdown of the westbound Washington Bridge is contributing to their traffic, former candidate for governor Ken Block has found a way to remind them.

The Barrington data analyst-turned-politician-turned-author bought space on an East Providence billboard last week to criticize Gov. Dan McKee’s administration’s handling of the bridge.

“If they had done their job, you would be home already,” one of two rotating messages on the digital highway sign reads.

“They knew in 2012,” says another over an image of cars stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a reference to an engineering report that warned of the bridge’s condition more than a decade before it was abruptly closed in December to prevent possible collapse .

The price to shut off the sign? Block sets 3 conditions

Block’s Watchdog RI nonprofit organization is paying for the $9,000-per-month billboard and raising money to keep it going indefinitely, or at least until McKee addresses a list of Block’s bridge-related grievances.

His demands:

  • Release the data and findings of inspections of the bridge’s substructure, including the piers and foundations under the Seekonk River surface.

  • “Clean house” at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, so that the people building a replacement bridge are not the same team that oversaw the demise of the first bridge.

  • McKee “stop indicating that the impact of this bridge is low… traffic remains snarled in Providence.”

The administration’s response? Crickets

There has been no indication that McKee is ready to change course on any of those issues or release the “forensic analysis” compiled by a team of consultants focused on why the bridge’s condition deteriorated in the first place.

The Journal was still awaiting a response from McKee’s office at deadline Tuesday.

One of two billboard messages put up in East Providence by Ken Block, targeting Gov. Dan McKee and his administration’s handling of the Washington Bridge’s known structural problems.

What lies on the Seekonk River bottom? Columns are 56 years old

The condition of the substructure of the bridge has come into the spotlight as the DOT awaits proposals from contractors to build a new westbound bridge to replace the condemned structure.

The entire horizontal superstructure of the bridge, including the road surface and beams that support it, are to be torn down under a separate demolition contract.

But the extent to which the existing vertical columns and foundations, or substructure, can be reused is being left to the company who wins the contract to design and build the new bridge.

And very little information is being made public about what condition those 56-year-old columns are in.

The DOT has released detailed engineering reports on the condition of the doomed superstructure, but only high level summaries of what divers found when they looked beneath the surface of the Seekonk. (The Journal has filed an Access to Public Records Act request for inspection reports on the substructure and not yet received a response.)

In a February memo released in March when the demolition was announced, consultant VHB wrote that some of the bridge piles “may” be reused, but others “will require supplementing with additional piles, which will also require new footings.”

“Although the concrete pier columns may have some service life remaining, the current condition and substandard reinforcement detailing does not ensure these columns can meet the project goals without significant modifications,” VHB wrote.

If the contractor finds out that foundations need to be replaced after work begins, the extended environmental permitting alone could delay the rebuild significantly.

Final bids are due July 3.

The billboard runs about $100K a year. How frustrated are folks?

Block said Tuesday he believes Rhode Islanders are angry enough about the bridge to keep the billboard up for at least a year, which would cost around $100,000.

If the billboard still happens to be up in 2026, it could stretch into the next campaign for governor. McKee is expected to run for reelection.

Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion Jr. said Tuesday that because the billboard does not name a candidate, it would probably not have to be reported to the Board of Elections as an independent electioneering expense.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Billboard panning bridge response comes with demands for McKee to meet