Op-Ed: The Story of Bridgegate

A perfect storm of poor decisions leading to the Washington Bridge crisis


We all remember the day the alert went out about the Washington Bridge’s critical failures, but before getting into the structure’s future, first a little backstory.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi was former Governor Gina Raimondo’s campaign manager when she ran for treasurer. As treasurer-elect, she needed a strong union connection and he brought Armand Sabitoni into her orbit. As treasurer, Raimondo successfully passed dramatic pension reform legislation that put her on Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders – and left many retirees fearful for their futures.

Raimondo then sought out the governorship and managed to win a close three-way primary in part because of labor splitting their vote. The RI Building and Construction Trade Council (RIBCTC) and unions representing different types of building and construction workers were the only labor groups who backed her. Shekarchi co-chaired her transition team, which notably included Michael Sabitoni, president of the RIBCTC and business manager of the RI Laborers District Council.

Michael Lewis had been the director of the RI Department of Transportation (RIDOT) since 2008. Early in the Raimondo administration, a job was posted that he knew nothing about: “To assume the responsibility for the overall administration of the department in the absence of the director…” Reading the tea leaves, Lewis resigned, enabling the administration to put their man Peter Alviti, former Cranston Director of Public Works who was the program director for the New England Laborers Health and Safety Fund, in place as head of the state’s transportation department with an annual budget now over $600 million. By any perspective, it was a major coup for organized labor.

Raimondo then rolled out RhodeWorks, a $5.4 billion 10-year plan to repair the structurally deficient roads and bridges in RI and create 6,000 new jobs. A major piece of the annual funding ($70 million) was to come from tolls on heavy commercial trucks. Despite being warned that there was a serious legal question about this method, the administration ordered and installed toll gantries as fast as they could.

A judge eventually ruled the gantries were illegal and forced the state to stop collecting. About $110 million came in, but with legal fees, refunds, and possibly other damages, the hit to the state could be monstrous. A final appeal is coming up this year and taxpayers have already spent $10 million for the state’s defense.

In 2021, Raimondo became Secretary of Commerce and Dan McKee became governor. McKee’s connection to the Sabitonis and the laborers is very strong and Alviti’s job has never been in question.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up to 2019, when the state applied for federal funds for “critical repairs to the Washington Bridge.” Alviti wrote that the bridge was “nearing a permanent state of disrepair. The existing bridge structure and the current on- and off-ramps are decaying and must be addressed immediately.” A contract was awarded, but the Federal Highway Administration, which controls the federal money, refused to accept the state’s selected contractor. Naturally, a lawsuit followed which wouldn’t be resolved for almost two years and result in a new bidding process.

In 2021, a new contract for the Washington Bridge for $78 million was awarded coincidentally with the same contractor that was building the new Henderson Bridge & Expressway and the 6/10 connector.

A July 2023 RIDOT inspection report on the Washington Bridge was frightening, but the new Henderson Bridge, with its own design and traffic flow flaws – which were known and unilaterally ignored by RIDOT throughout the process – wasn’t quite completed.

The failures that caused the closure of the westbound lane of the Washington Bridge apparently didn’t occur or weren’t noticed until two and a half months later, which was, coincidentally, right after the Henderson Bridge was completed. By the way… we don’t believe in coincidences. 

It was a traffic nightmare for the ages. Once the eastbound lane was reconfigured to two-way traffic, things have improved, but delays still range from 15-45 minutes. The bridge will likely have to be replaced. The latest plan, which numerous traffic officers have described as “psychotic,” will see the road expanded to three lanes on either side by narrowing the lanes.

But the crippling effect on businesses and Providence and East Providence roads will also affect the economy, with many of Providence’s best restaurants seeing 20-30 percent less business, which will likely have an effect on revenue collection by the state as well as employment numbers.

And no one has been fired. RIDOT means job security, we guess.



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