When the abandoned toll gantries on the Sakonnet River Bridge came down even as the Super Bowl played out across thousands of Rhode Island television screens on a Sunday night in February, the surprise event turned into a photo op for local State House Democrats and a few activists whom they contacted at the last moment. Sakonnet Times reporter Jim McGaw thought the timing odd enough to ask Representative John “Jay” Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) about it. Edwards responded:
The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority is having the gantries taken down this evening because they have a window of opportunity. They were going to take them down sometime next week, but they have clear weather this evening and the weather gets bad for the next few days.
Correspondence obtained by the Ocean State Current suggests Edwards’s statement might not have been accurate. Documents obtained through an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request also show that the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) quickly agreed to pay a 60% premium to have the gantries removed on short notice and may even have known the date that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks legislation would receive a final vote even before the legislation had been submitted.
Email correspondence between Jeff Bostock of Aetna Bridge Company, the general contractor for the project, and Joshua Liddell, whose Liddell Brothers would be dismantling the gantries, indicated on January 22 that RITBA had given the “go ahead” and wanted the work done right away. On January 28, Bostock informed Eric Offenberg, the director of engineering for RITBA, that Liddell was “tentatively saying maybe the 4th but more likely the 7th,” which was Super Bowl Sunday. On February 2 RITBA informed the state Dept. of Transportation (RIDOT) that the gantries would be coming down on February 7.
The scheduling came with some urgency. The day before Bostock reported the “go ahead” to Liddell, he had informed Offenberg that Liddell was “very busy (unusual for this time of year).” “They said they are flat out,” Bostock continued. “I’m already worried about how responsive they will be.”
Within a little more than an hour, Offenberg responded: “Can they do it in the next 3 weeks. They quoted 11k last year but I am ok with 18k.”
That quote, dated January 26, 2015, put the price for removal of the gantry at $11,500, not including traffic control and police details. Ultimately, the state paid Liddell $18,500, with another $12,000 to Aetna for “traffic control” and approximately $1,500 for police detail, bringing the total bill to around $32,000.
Also of interest is an email that Offenberg sent to Bostock on January 22 asking him to “keep on top of” Liddell. “We need it done asap, but at the latest by Feb 11.”
February 11 turned out to be the day on which the Rhode Island Senate voted to approve Governor Raimondo’s controversial RhodeWorks legislation, the House having passed the legislation after a long discussion on the 10th. The governor immediately signed the legislation, which will impose a statewide system of tolls on large commercial trucks and borrow hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure projects without voter approval.
But neither the House nor the Senate versions of the bill was submitted until January 28, the day Bostock confirmed the Sakonnet River Bridge gantry removal and six days after Offenberg had mentioned February 11 as the critical date. The first hearing on the legislation wasn’t until February 3, in the Senate Finance Committee.
State House observers have noted that the RhodeWorks legislation moved through the process with unusual speed, despite the level of controversy. The heat around the bill arguably hit a peak on February 9, when the chairman of the House Finance Committee, Raymond Gallison (D, Bristol, Portsmouth) ruled Republican committee member Patricia Morgan (Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) out of order and threatened to turn off her microphone when she insisted that RIDOT had not provided her with requested information and that she still had questions. House Finance then approved the bill.
Gallison was among the East Bay representatives present for the front page Sakonnet Times photograph on Super Bowl Sunday.
Although he had quickly supplied The Current with the 2015 quote from Liddell, RITBA’s Offenberg has not responded to a follow-up email asking what had made the February 11 date significant in his email from January 22.