|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: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.)
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