Washington Bridge Debacle Screams the Need for an Inspector General

Opinion piece
The current Washington Bridge closure crisis brings to the fore the topic of real accountability in RI.
The nationally recognized deteriorated conditions of the many bridges in the state triggers an important concept: “You get what you inspect, not what you expect!”
Simply if less than expert and thorough inspections are conducted you get less expected results.
So whenever public money is spent the lowest initial cost becomes far less important than verification of: existing conditions, assumptions made, expected project life, design compromises [inherent weaknesses vs. reliability & redundancy], choices made [materials, experts, experience, skills, etc.], implementation, and execution. Well done, those choices and steps can lead to lowest lifetime costs to the public.  The key steps along the way are a series of  critical path inspections where the next step is not taken until robust requirements are met!  That means systematic independent expert audits by folks with critically discerning minds and eyes!  [A truism once shared with me was that the best way to have a thorough inspection result was to have 2 qualified folks who dislike each other do the same task.  In RI that would mean NO favored firms!]
RIDOT has not cogently explained why there are so many simultaneous bridge jobs going on at the same time with major work activity gaps.
You will see a small crew on a bridge job for a few days then a significant period of no activity while at the same time there are numerous other partially completed or barely started jobs all with seemingly permanent lane restrictions at zero activity.
There is no rhyme nor reason nor readily apparent ranking system [based on criticality of traffic flow and degree of deterioration] being applied.
I’m told by retired highway engineers that all these simultaneous jobs with fits of starts and stops are tied to a RIDOT strategy of getting federal funds. Perhaps so!
However the observable conditions of many so called “completed’ [Because RIDOT signs so inform us] implies that these jobs were performed correctly or to best engineering practice.
As you drive around the state please take your time as you drive under a “repaired bridge”.  Look carefully at the repaired abutments.
It is almost a guarantee that you will observe RUST stains leaching from the “repaired” surfaces.  [the repaired 6/10 connector bridge over Atwood Avenue with its rust bleeding “repaired” abutments is merely one example of many]
That means that water is penetrating the repair and oxygen in the water is rusting the rebar.
When concrete embedded rebar rusts it expands [from the oxidation process] eventually spalling the concrete and weakening the structure.
That could mean any of the following:
1. the repair procedure and/or materials were incorrectly specified, selected or applied,
2. the storm water drainage system was not corrected to effectively direct storm water away from the structure,
3. the workmanship was less than stellar,
4. requisite material sample performance tests, site inspections and sign offs on the work were not done, or done poorly,
5. the “repair” was only intended as a stop-gap measure,
6. all of the above!
What can be done? A solid first step would be conducting a 3rd party “post mortem” audit A.S.A.P. specifically of the Washington Bridge project by a recognized expert engineering team skilled in non-destructive exams and forensic audits.
There are several nationally known firms that could do this!  Then, depending on findings, based on criticality that work be expanded across the portfolio of completed and underway RIDOT jobs . Whatever firm is chosen it should have NO RI ties!
While that first step is being done, our state government should address a serious failing of omission.
RI differs from many other areas of the country in that it lacks an “Office of the Inspector General” fully empowered to inspect all things related to public spending and activity as a protection for the public. In the past, when this subject was raised, a jurisdictional turf war between the governor’s office and the legislature became the roadblock to the establishment of such an office.  Both entities recognized the power of such an office and each wanted to control that power.  That is a problem easily solved. Establish and fund the office and make the office reportable to the RI Supreme Court. That takes the politics off the table and best protects the public! In my opinion, RI’s glaring lack of an empowered INSPECTOR GENERAL is void that needs to be filled NOW!
Should Rhode Islanders become really upset due to the magnitude of the ripple effect of the current mess, they always have the option of going to the various relevant Federal Highway Departments and their Inspector Generals.
My guess is it would be better that RI fix its own house vs. being forced to do things with mega-strings attached!
Here are some links re: State and local inspector generals:
As you can see this is a highly valued office and function for many jurisdictions around the country effectively serving the public.
Francis O’Connell
Smithfield, RI

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