Group proposes Escape Bridge become pedestrian span

Escape Bridge connecting Island Park and the Hummocks

A group of residents in the Hummocks section of Portsmouth has proposed to the RI Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Town Council that the Escape Bridge, which connects the neighborhood with Island Park, should be converted to pedestrian use and repairs be deferred to the ailing structure. The bridge, which carries Point Road, has seen its weight limit reduced to 4 tons and has been targeted by RIDOT for urgent renovation.

Grafton "Cap" Willey, of Point Road has been circulating a petition seeking support for the idea, and in a letter to RIDOT Director Michael Lewis says the span, originally intended for emergency egress during flooding, "has become a major thoroughfare for traffic from Island Park to the Route 24 on ramp which has been a detriment to a predominantly residential area on both sides of the bridge." Limiting the bridge to pedestrian traffic, the letter continues, would make the neighborhood "safer and quieter" and notes, "In this time of budget shortfalls and with RI needing a lot of work on its infrastructure and roads, this is a case where the repairs could be delayed and the funds used for more pressing projects." (See the complete letter and petition.)

In an interview conducted by e-mail, Willey explained the group's aim. "Our proposal is to limit the bridge to pedestrian traffic with retractable gates controlled by the Town for evacuation of Island Park in the case of flooding and emergencies which was the initial purpose of the bridge when it was built as an escape bridge in 1961. The problem for the neighborhood is that it has become the major access and exit to Island Park and has too much traffic for the residential neighborhood that is Almy Point and the Hummocks. It has become dangerous for the walkers, the children and the pets. The police department does not have the resources to enforce the speed limits through the neighborhood and the illegally exhausted motorcycle traffic during the summer disrupts the peacefulness of the residents at all hours of the day and night. People can exit from Island Park just as easily via Boyd's Lane which is a much safer and less populated road."

Willey went on to say, "I have overwhelming support from the neighbors. The DOT is open to the idea of saving money depending on what the Town officials think about it. The initial reaction of the Town officials is not enthusiastic at this point." When asked how many had signed the petition, Willey replied that he had "not added up all the signatures" but that it was "in excess of 30."

Asked for RIDOT's response, Chief Public Affairs Officer Dana Alexander Nolfe said, "Director Lewis told Mr. Willey in an email that he should bring his ideas before his elected officials of the Town as well as his state legislative delegation. The Town represents the voice of the people and we take our cues from what they say."

Portsmouth Town Administrator Bob Driscoll said the issue has been placed on the agenda for the next Council meeting, and expressed serious reservations about the proposal and "the cavalier way it dealt with public property, public safety, and public responsibility." Driscoll went on to say, "We have all seen some fairly bizarre agendas being advanced in an attempt to take advantage of 'these tough economic times.' This one, if serious, would take the cake, at least locally. I advised Cap that his proposal was a 'nonstarter' and will contact Director Lewis."

Portsmouth Emergency Management Director Jim Lowrimore had not responded to an e-mail seeking comment by press time.

Full disclosure and commentary:
I have a personal stake in this: I live on Gormley Ave, and about once a year there is flooding on Park Avenue severe enough that Boyd's Lane is inaccessible and we have to get out over the Escape Bridge (see coverage, below). I live in the house where my mom escaped the '38 Hurricane, and her stories about our Island Park neighbors who did not survive are never far from my mind in hurricane season. The tattered blue plastic ties still flap on the phone poles 16 feet above the sidewalk across from Flo's Clam Shack, marking high water from that storm.

While I can also understand the safety concerns of Mr. Willey and the neighbors, I just don't see restricting the bridge as the right solution — especially if the proposal is to defer critical repairs.

In my opinion, this is the wrong lever. If there are problems with noise and traffic safety, those should be addressed through specific mechanisms: traffic calming, enforcement, and education. Achieving traffic reduction by closing a bridge makes no more sense to me than keeping kids from using profanity by opposing a skate park or controlling housing density by refusing to consider sewers. These may be appropriate goals, but it just doesn't seem to me like the right way to get there. To a person trying to pound in a nail, just about anything may look like a hammer. But that doesn't make it one.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments, and be sure to contact the Town Council with your input. (Here's their e-mail addresses:,,,,,,

Letter and petition to RIDOT
Previous coverage of Escape Bridge weight reductions in 2009 and 2008
Island Park flooding in December 2008, April 2007
Coverage of high-water mark of '38 Hurricane


Remember that the cove bridge was first restricted down to 10 tons, and in the course of just one year it deteriorated so much more that it had to be restricted recently down to only 4 tons. If repairs to the cove bridge are not made now, the whole thing will be unsafe for ANY traffic in a few years and therefore will be useless in an emergency evacuation situation.

Willey's appeals to the DOT about "budget shortfalls" are disingenuous. Surely he knows that delaying repairs will render the cove bridge unrepairable and will serve only to raise the cost to that of a full replacement which likely will never happen.

It is a selfish proposal and basically says that the cove residents want a no-traffic neighborhood and they don't care if Island Park resident die in a hurricane as a result.

John, your analogies aren't accurate. It isn't like "controlling housing density by refusing to consider sewers", it's like controlling housing density by refusing to let people make any repairs to their homes so they begin to fall apart and people have to move out. There's your analogy!

I don't live in Island Park or near it, so I guess I have no "personal" stake in this, But I do have a stake in it: It's my town too. I pay taxes to the town and the state to have safety tended to, whether it's for fire departments or bridge repairs. There are hundred of homes in IP and I want everyone to be safe in the inevitable next big hurricane.

I hope the council sees through this nonsense and makes short shrift of saying "No" to this selfish idea.

John - I agree with Maddie_C completely. I, too, don't live in I.P., but my concerns for the well-being of Portsmouth extend to every neighborhood in town, and I agree with Mr. Driscoll that the idea is basically a non-starter.

And to the folk's who live in the delightfully termed "Hummocks" - Nice try. I suspect if I lived there, I too would relish the idea of living below a "a small round natural hill" nestled against the Sakonnet River - especially if that hummock was at the end of neighborhood of cul-de-sacs - a neighborhood with no "escape" except for a tunnel under, or on-ramp onto Route 24. But there are dozens of reasons why the apparent preference of the Hummocks neighborhood's residents would be a terrible plan for several hundreds of other Portsmouth residents. Not the least of which are the business people of the I.P. community. Need we discuss the likely negative impact on I.P. businesses should I.P. become a community essentially at the end of a series of (very narrow) cul-de-sacs?

The Hummock's residents' use of any argument involving "These Troubled Economic Times" is a bit weak considering that what is being discussed is money from the State or Federal government, and not from The Town of Portsmouth, and if monies are available, it would be ludicrous, ludicrous, ludicrous, for us to oppose it. Especially, in These Troubled Economic Times, it is important for us to do what we reasonably can do to support and foster home-town businesses.

John, Maddie_C may also be right about your analogy being perhaps less on target than hers. But I think Maddie_C would agree that your analogies are bound to be more colorful than any we'd come up with. And I apologize for using "These Troubled Economic Times" without your authorization as copyright holder.

As a resident of the Hummocks, I actually completely agree with Mr. Willey's assertion that the traffic along Hummock Ave. and Point Road is dangerous, if not simply illegal and obnoxious (referencing the constant onslaught of Thunderous motorcycles all weekend long). However, it is simply not an option to close the Cove Bridge to all but pedestrian and "escape" traffic. If he suggests that the bridge's repairs can wait, or even be avoided completely, citing a financial savings to the town (or State?), that is ludicrous. Even if the bridge were to be only used for emergency purposes, it would still have to be repaired to handle all potential traffic. Just imagine what would happen in the case of a real flood emergency, when all the IP traffic is "escaping", and the bridge fails due to disrepair!

What we need is traffic and speed control on that stretch of road, and actual law enforcment of noise ordinances.
AND we need to repair the bridge.

Hi, Chris...
Thanks for the comment and the important reminder that folks living in the Hummocks can agree on the problem and differ on the solution.

I suspect that having this agenda item before the Council would be a great opportunity to press for better enforcement of speed and noise ordinances. Folks in the neighborhood will certainly have their attention.


Since being elected this past November, I have been very vocal with RIDOT to get something done with this bridge. While I understand some of the residents' idea to close off traffic except in time of emergency and not spend the money on this structure might sound good today, it actually could be very detrimental in the long run. The Cove Bridge is deteriorating at a very quick pace and it is not due to traffic but, rather the elements. The problem with not spending the money now to fix the bridge, closing it off and only using it as an emergency egress from IP is that it will continue to rot away and some day in the not too distant future, it will be inpassable.
My recommendation would be to continue to pursue the bridge repair, get the Cove Bridge back to a safe structure and then take up this argument. Otherwise, we might be left with a bridge that no one can use at any time, even and most importantly, an emergency.

Hi, Rep. Edwards...
Thanks very much for your comment. Glad we have you keeping this bridge on RIDOT's radar. And, as you say, once the bridge is back in good repair, we should certainly be able to have a conversation about measures to deal with problems on this stretch of road. Who knows -- this might be a candidate for something like speed tables.


In a town that relies heavily on the revenue from our businesses, futher isolating the business district of island park may be the final nail in the coffin of many island park business that are desperately trying to survive. We need those business for the Town to survive. We should not let Portsmouth be finanicially surrendered for the convenience of an few who think they are elite or special.

(This is as crazy as the lady who has objected to a piece of high school property to be developed into a high school playing field because she did not like it next to her home. Lady, the school was there first - what did you think they might to use school propety for -cattle grazing?)

My idea is to rebuld the Stone Bridge. That would enhance local traffic flow to the Island Park Business District.

Hi, ElCapitan...
Agree -- rebuilding the Stone Bridge would be great for traffic AND for local businesses. Now if we could just get some light rail to Boston like we had 100 years ago... sorry... dreaming again.