Talking Politics

The follies of a falling bridge, and the high cost of a soccer stadium

By Ian Donnis
Posted 2/20/24

STORY OF THE WEEK: Back in the day, the approach of the end of February would signal the time for the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies – the bygone annual satiric sendup of the year in Rhode …

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Talking Politics

The follies of a falling bridge, and the high cost of a soccer stadium


STORY OF THE WEEK: Back in the day, the approach of the end of February would signal the time for the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies – the bygone annual satiric sendup of the year in Rhode Island news. The crisis involving the westbound Washington Bridge would certainly figure prominently this time around* if the Follies had not been canceled as of 2018. The annual event across the state line in Swansea, Mass., offered an opportunity to laugh at our foibles, even in the face of a tragedy like the Station nightclub fire disaster in 2003. Ultimately, though, you can add the Washington Bridge to a series of calamities – the state banking crisis, 38 Studios, and so on – that have eroded Rhode Islanders’ trust in government.

There’s no easy fix for the westbound span and it’s possible the solution could take years to complete. Given this, a standard political textbook might suggest empathizing with the impact on everyday people, rather than minimizing the effect or trying to contextualize it as part of a broader effort to improve deficient bridges in the state. RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, during a lengthy joint Oversight hearing at the Statehouse this week, did apologize to Rhode Islanders and acknowledge his responsibility as the head of the state’s transportation agency. At the same time, Alviti tried to frame the Washington Bridge situation as an anomaly, and the hearing turned up little in the way of new information, even if lawmakers were able to channel the frustration of their constituents. The details everyone wants – how the bridge was deemed okay last year and is now considered so damaged that it may need to be replaced – are expected with the release of additional engineering information in the weeks ahead.

*If you have an idea for a Follies-style song, based on an actual song about the bridge saga, email it to me. If I get enough entries I will announce the winner in a future column.

OVERSIGHT: Here are some key excerpts from my Political Roundtable interview this week with state Rep. June Speakman, a member of the House Oversight Committee.

• Asked whether lawmakers can run an effective Oversight process, given that they are not engineers, Speakman said, “I think you answered your own question. Of course not. No, it would have been helpful to have an engineer sitting right next to me to help me understand what I was seeing. I think you may have heard me ask a question about the inspections and the fact that they found pigeon debris. And why was that not removed? And it, you know, that’s not even a technical question, but it would have been helpful for me to have someone there to help me interpret the report.”

• On whether she supports Peter Alviti continuing as RIDOT director: “Well, I think it’s time to get some real quick answers to what went wrong. It’s hard to know what responsibility he had. I liked Rep. Carson’s question about how do you manage seven different contracts and workers who appear not to be happy. That feels like a lot to manage. And I think we need a little bit more information to determine whether or not he is able to continue in his job.”

• Was it shocking that the westbound Washington Bridge did not get more scrutiny before December, considering how it carries close to 100,000 people a day and was already considered deficient? “Yes, it is. And for me, the biggest question is the look back, and what is the process used and why. How could something have become so deficient so quickly, or again, without notice? I hear from constituents about these thousands-year-old bridges in Rome and how they seem to manage to survive. So the idea that a bridge that was built in 1968 when I was in high school – I’m not that old – should be ready to fall down really strikes me as that there’s something wrong even way back then.”

SOCCER COST: “Taxpayers are paying dearly to bring a pro-sports team back to the faded industrial city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island,” reports Bloomberg’s Martin Z. Braun, in a story indicating that muni bond yields are nearly 14% on a tax-equivalent basis – an “eye-popping” amount – for the new soccer complex. Asked for comment, Grace Voll, spokeswoman for Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, said via email, “All parties performed their due diligence on all aspects of this vital project. Throughout this project, we made sure that the taxpayers were protected. Now with phase one of the stadium financing completed, we are excited to start phase II of this gateway project. This agreement has been fully vetted by numerous experienced parties. Ultimately, 63% of the project cost is the responsibility of the private developer. Once complete, the stadium at Tidewater Landing is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Pawtucket and the state to create this spectacular public space. It will be home to Rhode Island FC and will also host concerts, community activities, festivals, and collegiate and professional sports (including soccer, football, lacrosse, rugby, and other sports). The stadium will provide Rhode Islanders with fun and family-friendly entertainment options for generations to come.”

POISON AT HOME: Although lead paint was outlawed in Rhode Island more than 40 years ago, an investigation by my colleague Nina Sparling found that landlords rarely face consequences for failing to comply with state laws meant to protect children from exposure to lead. About 500 kids in the state get poisoned with lead each year, mostly from exposure to paint. As Nina reports, “Of the five cities from which The Public’s Radio reviewed records related to enforcement of the lead certificate laws, Newport stands alone in its lack of enforcement. Housing inspectors in Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket all check if a property has a lead certificate in a public database when a complaint comes in about any building standards issue, like a lack of heat or faulty electricity. Building officials in those cities also cited a lack of resources as a barrier to ensuring more widespread compliance.”

A BETTER WAY: Central Falls has been lauded for taking a more aggressive approach to policing lead paint poisoning – and it’s turning up the heat on landlords, as Nina reports in another installment in her series on Renters at Risk.

CHOCOLATE ELECTION: The results are in. Milk chocolate caramel was the winner, over four rounds of voting, in a Valentine’s Day election staged Wednesday by Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-Providence) and Senate Majority Whip Val Lawson (D-East Providence), as a demo of how to do ranked-choice voting. Via release: “Wednesday’s election – held online and open to anyone – pitted Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel against Hershey Zero Sugar Chocolate, Lindt White Chocolate Truffles, Andes Crème de Menthe and That’s It Dark Chocolate Espresso Truffles, and asked voters to rank the five chocolates in their order of preference. Samples of all the candidates were available at tables outside the House chambers around yesterday’s legislative session.

In the first round of voting, Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel received 40 first-place votes, or about 32% of the total, giving it a small lead over That’s It Dark Chocolate Espresso Truffles, which received 33 votes, or about 27% of the vote. Third place was Andres Crème de Menthe (28), followed by Lindt White Chocolate Truffles (18) and Hershey Zero Sugar (5). Full election results are available at this link.

Since no chocolate received 50% or more of the vote, the last-place finisher, Hershey Zero Sugar, was eliminated and its second-place votes added to the totals of the remaining candies for the second round. This increased by two votes both Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel and That’s It Dark Chocolate Espresso Truffles totals, maintaining a seven-vote lead for Ghirardelli. One of the five votes for Hershey’s Zero Sugar did not go to any other chocolate because the voter did not select a second choice – voters in ranked choice are not required to vote for any candidate beyond their first choice if they so choose, but in the event their first choice does not win, their vote will have no effect on the final outcome. After two more rounds of this process, Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel finished with 79 votes to 44 for That’s It Dark Chocolate Espresso Truffles, and a commanding 63% of the total vote. A visualization of each voting round is online here.”

TAXING TIMES: Whether taxes are the cost of a civilized society or a sign of a confiscatory state, it’s no secret that government remains on the prowl for new ways to collect revenue. This came to mind when I went to see an old college pal in New Jersey. I didn’t have the exact change for an unattended toll station while leaving the Garden State Parkway, and since I lack E-ZPass, expected to get a bill in the mail for the toll ($1.05), plus perhaps a processing fee of about $5. Instead, the bill arrived with a $50 administrative fee. Fifty dollars! Turns out that New Jersey is in its own special category in exacting this cost – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over time – and a Superior Court judge rejected a lawsuit arguing that the $50 fee is excessive. Somewhere, Tony Soprano is either shaking his fist or having a good laugh, while Jack Kerouac silently weeps.

CHILD LABOR: Following up on her investigation into the seafood-processing industry in New Bedford, my colleague Nabine Sebai reports on how the U.S. Department of Labor has expanded its probe of possible violations of child labor laws.

ON THE MOVE: Miriam Weizenbaum is transitioning out of her role as civil chief for Attorney General Peter Neronha. Kathryn M. Sabatini, currently executive counsel and chief of policy for Neronha, will take over the civil chief post. “Transitions are typically bittersweet, as this one certainly is,” Neronha said in a statement. “The leadership and experience that Miriam Weizenbaum brought to our Civil Division at a critical point in time was key to the significant outcomes my Office has achieved on behalf of the people of Rhode Island” … Brian T. Moynihan, a 1981 Brown University alum and CEO of Bank of America, will take over the lead of Brown’s governing body, the Brown Corporation, in July. “It is an honor to serve Brown, the fellows and trustees, and especially the dedicated faculty, students, staff and alumni,” Moynihan said in a statement. “I look forward to working with President Paxson and her team as we continue to elevate our great university.”

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

RI AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Crowley: “Every February we celebrate Black History month. With the revitalization of the American labor movement in recent years, it is important that we acknowledge the difference that Black women and men have made in the fight for workers’ rights. The U.S. Department of Labor recently showcased the role of black women organizers in their piece ‘8 Black Women Labor Leaders You Should Know’ and Rhode Island’s own George T. Downing from Newport was instrumental in forming one of the first labor unions for Black American workers in 1869 when he formed the Colored American Labor Union. Black Rhode Islanders were also critical in ending formal discrimination in Labor Unions during World War II in Providence. If you haven’t seen it, I would encourage everyone to see the new film about the life of union and civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, called ‘Rustin,’ which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground Productions.”

State Rep. BRIAN C. NEWBERRY (R-North Smithfield): “The presidential election is nine months away. The two leading contenders for the major party nominations are despised by large swaths of the public and even by large numbers of their own parties. One is facing serious legal issues and attempts to throw him off the ballot, while the other appears mentally incompetent and clueless as to where he is half the time. Are either going to actually be on the ballot in November? These are not questions that have been asked in decades, if ever. What does the rest of the world think of this situation? What do the nation’s enemies think? Do they see weakness and opportunity? How did the nation get to this point? Both major parties have better qualified people, regardless of what one thinks of their policies or positions, to carry the banner. How did our political system reach a point of such paralysis that partisans on both sides are willing to settle for second, third, or tenth-best, and it appears no one can do anything about it? This shapes up as the most dispiriting and ugly election season in my lifetime. We need to collectively do better.” 

COREY MCCARTY, senior VP and GM, CCA Health Rhode Island: “Of the myriad health-related awareness holidays on the calendar every year, I have a professional and personal soft spot for National Caregivers Day, which was celebrated on Feb. 16. My mother has spent the last 12 years serving as a caregiver for her parents. She is one of thousands of Rhode Islanders – or one in five across the state – responsible for providing regular care to a family member or friend with a health problem or disability. And as Rhode Island continues to collectively age (studies from the Office of Healthy Aging show that roughly one in four Rhode Islanders will be classified as an older adult by 2040), the demand for professional and family caregiving services is only going to increase. Paid and unpaid caregivers play a critical role in helping older adults and individuals with significant needs, including those with disabilities, live safely and independently in their homes and communities. I’ve seen this firsthand by watching my mother devote herself to helping my grandparents. As the GM for CCA Health here, I also see it in the way our care teams support our members each and every day. Playing the role of a caregiver is difficult, emotionally taxing, and often thankless work. So, to continue the sentiment from this national holiday, I want to say kudos to the caregivers. To my mom and to the thousands of healthcare professionals who are helping older adults age gracefully: Thank you. And remember to take care of yourselves as well.”

DRUG POLICY: The overdose prevention center planned on the campus of Rhode Island Hospital represents a decidedly different approach to curbing the harm of drug use in the U.S. On a similar note, it’s worth considering how Portugal cuts its number of overdoses by 80%. As Brian Mann reports for NPR, the country’s success stems from addressing addiction as a healthcare issue, rather than a criminal justice one.

KICKER: This week marked the 15th anniversary of when I began a new adventure at what we now call The Public’s Radio (formerly WRNI and then Rhode Island Public Radio). I somehow managed to make the transition from print to radio, and here we are. It’s a big anniversary year for your humble correspondent since my time at the now-defunct Providence Phoenix started in April 1999 – not long before the lifting of the veil on the Operation Plunder Dome probe that turned Buddy Cianci into a guest of the federal government. It remains a privilege to be a political reporter in Rhode Island. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and very thankful to readers and listeners for placing their trust in me. With the pending merger between The Public’s Radio and Rhode Island PBS, keep an eye out for my future forays in television.

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.