Editor’s note: Jim Hummel has a mid-year update with new information on a handful of his investigations.
Office with a View: Plans to build a $7.2 million state-owned ‘natural resources and visitors center’ in Exeter have ground to a halt. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s plans ran into a buzz saw of local opposition from residents and others who use Browning Mill Pond in the Arcadia Management Area.
Many felt the 13,000-square-foot facility was inappropriate for the location — so close to the pond and poorly advertised by state officials. Work on the center, which was supposed to have begun already, has been delayed because of several setbacks. They include a lawsuit filed by the local towns insisting that the state has to get clearance from local planning and zoning boards for the project, which it didn’t do.
More problematic, though, is a sudden lack of funding. The General Assembly last month pulled back millions of dollars budgeted for this year, the first year of construction. DEM is also conducting traffic and archeological studies, but a spokeswoman declined to tell The Hummel Report if — or when — the project was going forward.
A Big Hit: Last summer’s popular Providence-to-Newport ferry is back with a longer season. But it got off to a bumpy start — literally — right after it launched earlier last month. More than 33,000 people took advantage of the taxpayer-subsidized service last summer, which featured $10 one-way adult tickets from India Point Park in Providence to downtown Newport.
The lower prices are made possible by a half million dollar federal grant, aimed at relieving traffic congestion. Last fall, DOT Director Peter Alviti said he’d like to see the service expanded and this year the state followed through, beginning the service in mid-June and running it through October 1 — 41 days longer than last year. But a day after launching on June 16, the ferry collided with a buoy in the Providence River when trying to avoid a sudden change in direction of another boat near it — and that forced the suspension of the service for 10 days.
All Aboard?: Wickford Junction has never lived up to the state’s commuter rail ridership projections and is costing taxpayers millions of dollars in maintenance and lost revenue. The DOT, which charged $4 a day for parking when the $44 million complex opened in 2012, abandoned that fee years ago. Even still, only a couple of hundred people use the 1,110-car white elephant garage adjacent to the MBTA commuter train stop on any given day.
Beginning July 3, the state began offering free fares for riders travelling to Warwick or Providence. The free fares promotion runs until the end of the year.
Taking the Hit: The contractor that installed defective guardrails on the IWay bridge in Providence has agreed to pay back half a million dollars, but still insists the state is partially at fault. For years Jersey barriers covered the defective guardrails on the Route 195 relocation project’s signature bridge while the DOT and Cardi Corporation, which installed them nearly a decade ago, wrangled over who was responsible.
Cardi is paying $500,000 to settle claims with the federal government, which paid for the vast majority of the Iway project, according to The Providence Journal. The company still points the finger at the state DOT, saying that its inspectors signed off on the guardrail installation. It is not ruling out making a legal claim against the state.
Clean Enough?: State officials have now acknowledged what we reported in April: Narragansett Bay hasn’t been this clean in more than a century and a half. And that means good news for Rhode Island’s shell fishermen. The Department of Environment Management in May reopened large portions of Upper Narragansett Bay to shell fishing, some of which had not been opened for more than 70 years. A total of more the 3,700 acres has been reopened, officially acknowledging what scientists and users of Rhode Island’s waters have known for years: The bay is in significantly better shape than it was even five years ago.
The Cost of Doing Business: In June we reported several areas the General Assembly might consider trimming from its own budget as leaders tried to bridge a $134 million budget gap. The House did, in fact, look in the mirror when it was searching for cuts by announcing two weeks later that it will reduce its own proposed spending by $2 million next year. That still leaves it with more than $40 million to run a part-time legislature that has dozens of people receiving full-time benefits for only working 20 hours a week. A spokesmen tells us it is still unclear what specifically will be cut from next year’s General Assembly budget.
The Hummel Report is already gearing up for second half of 2017. If you have tips or story suggestions send it directly to Jim@HummelReport.org