Concrete, chain-link in place for at least five years at Arnold Mills Bridge

Concrete, chain-link in place for at least five years at Arnold Mills Bridge

Plantings and fencing were installed on the Arnold Mills Bridge on Sneech Pond Road years ago, but RIDOT officials say some people were still driving onto the bridge, which is why they’ve shut it down to pedestrians. (Breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)
Resident seeks inspection reports

CUMBERLAND – The 1886 Arnold Mills Bridge is in such rough shape it can’t even be trusted to hold up under pedestrians.

When the Rhode Island Department of Transportation shut down the Sneech Pond Road bridge to traffic in 2009, workers placed concrete barriers to keep cars off, said Charles St. Martin, of RIDOT. After neighbors held a rally to have those blockades replaced with something more aesthetically pleasing, the concrete was replaced by wooden posts, fencing and planters.

This month, after the latest inspection of the steel and wood-plank bridge, it was shut down again due to further deterioration in its structural steel components, with chain-link fencing put up to keep all users off, said St. Martin.

Concrete barriers have also now been added in front of the fencing.

“The reason the concrete barriers are being installed is for safety,” said St. Martin. “The wooden bollards/posts that were installed when the pedestrian features were added have been knocked over by vehicles in the past. The concrete barriers will be used to make sure an errant vehicle doesn’t drive through the fence and onto the bridge.”

According to St. Martin, the bridge is in the state’s 10-year plan to be fixed starting in 2023. A recent inspection found that it wasn’t even safe for pedestrians, he said.

Sterling Vernon, the Sneech Pond Road resident who helped lead the charge to make the bridge more pedestrian friendly nine years ago, said he feels like there has to be a better solution than shutting down the bridge to people who want to walk their neighborhood.

Vernon originally organized the Arnold Mills Village Association in hopes of uniting area residents “to let our town and state understand the needs and wishes of the neighborhood.”

He solicited a bid for an independent engineering analysis and proposals for supporting the bridge for pedestrians. Closing the bridge, he said at the time, “would damage a 300-year history of the village and divide the neighborhood into two segments.”

Vernon said it’s difficult to accept the addition of metal fencing and concrete barriers after all the previous hard work that went into trying to maintain the bridge as it was.

With expertise and experience in engineering, he said he’s seeking access to inspection reports of both 2012, when the bridge was deemed fine for pedestrians, and 2018 to verify whether the bridge is substantially different than it was before. If not, he said, he’ll be convinced this was a “move of convenience, not a move of engineering and data.”

Vernon said he’s been under the bridge, and is “not a complete moron,” and it doesn’t appear that the bridge has deteriorated very much.

“I don’t want to rankle the DOT, but at the same time, this feels like a very unfortunate distraction that is very damaging not only to this small part of the neighborhood, but also the history of Cumberland,” he said.

He added that he was discouraged upon contacting RIDOT that neither the aesthetics nor the history of the bridge seemed to be taken into account. It appears that town officials also aren’t interested in trying to intervene, he said.

The bridge serves local traffic on rural Sneech Pond Road, off Nate Whipple Highway in Arnold Mills. Since its closure, cars often turn around in neighborhood residents’ driveways.

Neighbors back in 2009 had asked state officials to create a more aesthetically pleasing barrier to vehicles in a village listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The DOT expressed willingness to upgrade the barriers, and RIDOT officials agreed under the condition that no cars would cross it.

The bridge sits in a national historic district.

RIDOT’s comprehensive bridge inspection protocols require a thorough inspection of all structurally deficient bridges every year. Should a finding result in a change in conditions that create a safety hazard, RIDOT moves immediately to restrict or prohibit travel over a bridge.

This bridge is included in RIDOT’s 10-year plan for improvements, beginning work in 2023. RIDOT’s bridge program utilizes an asset-management driven approach to identify and schedule repairs and bridge replacement projects while considering many factors, including the bridge’s condition and the volume of traffic that uses it, said St. Martin.

The Arnold Mills Bridge was first built in 1886 and reconstructed in 1985. It was bypassed in the 1950s by the installation of Nate Whipple Highway, and overlooks a spillway on the Abbott Run.

Many of Cumberland’s smaller old bridges, largely unnoticed over the years, have become a focal point of late as they’ve deteriorated to the point of not being usable. The Howard Road Bridge, off Abbott Run Valley Road, remains closed, and RIDOT officials have warned that they may have to shut down the small Diamond Hill Road bridge near Nate Whipple Highway for repairs in the next two years. Orange and white barriers recently went up on that bridge’s sidewalks to help ensure that trucks don’t drive onto them.

Fencing and concrete blockades are now in place at the bridge, and are expected to stay there for at least the next five years.