Community News

Digging on the East Side Continues

An update on Narragansett Bay Commission's East Side construction

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

By outward appearance, the rebuilding of the Hope Street infrastructure, which started in April and just ended in August, appeared to have disaster written all over it. The section of the street from the Pawtucket line to Rochambeau was barely passable for vehicular traffic. Barriers, detour signs and one lane only traffic were everywhere. Even if you could get through, you couldn’t park! And, even if you walked over from the neighborhood, crossing the street was your next challenge, and it was a big one.

Yet somehow, as the paving concludes and the street returns to normal (even better than normal one could argue), it appears the merchants survived. Indeed, some even seemed to flourish. And if you never knew what the Narragansett Bay Commission was, you certainly do now. Most importantly, another step to safeguard our precious Narragansett Bay has been taken. So, why did it work so well and who’s next on the group’s hit list?

The City certainly tried to assist in the process. According to Jim Bennett, the Director of the Providence Office of Economic Development, “the City provided residents with temporary overnight parking permits for those whose driveways were inaccessible during the construction period.” He also expressed gratitude to the neighborhood and the businesses for understanding and supporting these important infrastructure improvements.

And while the work on Hope Street is done, many months of work remain in the Summit Neighborhood/Miriam Hospital Area/North Main Street areas and it may not be pretty. Narrow streets are often closed and heavy equipment, traffic detours and delays are constant.

The government entity that is behind all of this work has two of the three buzzwords in its name to encourage our support for whatever it is that they do. We asked 5 random people if they knew what the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) does and they all responded, “They send me a bill for water or something.”

So what exactly do they do? Created by the State in 1980 with an $87.7 million dollar bond, the Narragansett Bay Commission has grown at a staggering pace and now boasts hundreds of employees. But more importantly, they have also dramatically reduced the amount of wastewater, sewage and sludge that gets into Narragansett Bay.

So why is all this construction necessary now? In actuality, the project is overdue. The NBC’s Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Program is a federally mandated water quality improvement project to comply with the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act (41 years after passage!). Completion of these projects will enable Rhode Island to meet the Department of Environmental Management policy to “eliminate overflows from a three-month storm” - 1.64 inches of rain in six hours.

The new main line at Field’s Point has already kept about five billion gallons of sewage from entering Narragansett Bay. And the new lines along with the Seekonk River Line (NBC’s next proj- ect) will connect into the main line and keep most of the East Side sewage out of the Bay. Water quality for swimming and shell fishing has already been greatly improved in the Bay since these steps were taken.

To their credit, the Commission has been quite conscientious about their project. They have been praised by Hope Street merchants, neighborhood associations and residents for their constant streams of information about scheduling and dislocations. There have been some minor delays and the project went longer than expected, but when compared to what has been accomplished, the results seem quite impressive.

The bottom line is that this is work that had to be done. The infrastructure of the city’s sewage system is well past its prime and no longer able to handle the current demands. The new sewer separation on Hope, north and south of the Miriam Hospital, and North Main will diminish the sewage overflows into the Moshassuck River (which ties in with the Providence River and heads to the Bay when there is a heavy rain). By adding separate storm sewers, the capacity of the existing sanitary sewer is increased, which lessens, indeed virtually eliminates, the possibility of having the sanitary sewer overwhelmed during wet weather. Rainwater will still flow into the Moshassuck, but from a new separate sewer and it will not carry bacteria and floatables from the sanitary sewers.

However the rainwater will still carry animal waste, lawn chemicals, and gas and oil from roads and parking lots, so it’s not completely clean. The EPA is requiring more and more municipalities to develop plans for dealing with storm water. It’s a huge task with hundreds of pages of guidance documents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In Providence, Sheila Dormody, the Mayor’s Director of Sustainability, in conjunction with DEM, has been holding workshops to discuss the possibility of creating a storm water utility to take a regional (or perhaps even state-wide) responsibility for handling storm water. “It’s a serious issue that involves six communities along the Bay and we’re doing a two-part study to see if we can come up with a solution.” The study should be completed in 2014. Bottom line is that a financed solution will still have to be paid for, so even if they decide to have NBC manage it, there will be an additional cost to taxpayers.

The projects to the north and south of Miriam and the project on North Main Street will also improve the drainage in the area. Even in a moderate steady rain, North Main Street can become an ocean. The new storm sewer, drains and catch basins should go a long way towards improving that situation.

Now, the bad news. The areas north and south of Miriam will be under construction for another year to 18 months. Reconstruction on North Main should begin in August and should take about a month. North Main Street is technically a State Road, Route 1, so legally daytime work is restricted. Like Hope Street, North Main Street will be rebuilt from the concrete base to improve the integrity of the road.

Phase I of the project included a deep rock tunnel that captured sewage overflows and transports the flow for treatment to the NBC’s Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility. The Phase I tunnel was completed in 2008, and has captured (and transported for treatment to the Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility) over five billion gallons of combined sewage that otherwise would have flowed into Nar-agansett Bay. Phase II includes two near surface interceptors along the Seekonk and Woonasquatucket Rivers to bring additional flow to the Phase I tunnel, a new storm drainage system in the Summit neighborhood and a constructed wetlands in Central Falls.

The other major East Side NBC project is, for the most part, out of sight – out of mind as it runs along the Seekonk River. It will be primarily the work of “The Seekonk River Monster,” a powerful mini-tunnel boring machine that was lowered into a shaft near the Wyndham Hotel and will dig a tunnel for a new pipe that will create a new underground system that will connect to the line at Davol Square. It will also be able to handle all of the new projects in the I-195 corridor whenever it is built out.

Here are some things you might want to know about the Seekonk River/India Street project:

• It will require an 8,000-ft long, 48-60’’ diameter pipe along the Seekonk River. It will run from the hurricane barrier to the Salvation Army on Pitman Street at depths ranging from 10 to 35 feet and cost $18.7 million.

• The Seekonk River Monster, the tunnel-drilling machine, only goes in a straight line. So, receiving pits at various surface locations must be created when the machine is redirected or needs to turn a corner.

• A jacking pit at India Street will result in a temporary street closure between South Main and South Water Streets. Traffic will be redirected via Tockwotten Street going west, right on South Main, left on Tockwotten, right on South Water... opposite going east early in September (see map).

• The majority of the work in India Point Park will begin in January 2014, with completion in April 2014 and the entire project should be completed by December 2014. There will also be isolated street closures and traffic disruptions on Pitman Street between Butler Avenue and Richmond Square likely in October, 2013.

Unfortunately even after all this work is done, there will still remain some potentially significant problems. The biggest one is in the City of Providence owns all of the catch basins (and there are thousands). If they are not regularly maintained, it will allow storm water to get into storm drains or gutters on the street. Many street drains on the East Side are caked solid with dirt and debris and don’t do a good job at letting storm water in. The City is woefully under-resourced when it comes to cleaning their existing catch basins as they only have a few trucks with the proper maintenance equipment. The new sewer will alleviate the sanitary overflow issue. However, the new CSO catch basins installed in the Hope, Summit and North Main areas are owned by the City, which will be responsible for their maintenance and cleaning. In fairness to the City, while the NBC lives for sewers, Providence has a myriad of other issues to handle with an increasing tight financial budget.

This year’s budget for NBC was $78 million and they have 251 employees. On the ironic side, (according to NBC’s staggering 275 page annual report) the ten largest customers by billing are all, except one, non-profits or municipalities – Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital, Providence Housing Authority, City of Providence, City of Pawtucket, Providence School Department, Providence College, Johnson & Wales, Fairfield Residential (owns apartment complexes, including University Heights and Sutterfield, and Shorewood in North Providence) and the State of RI.

Hopefully you now know more about the NBC, what they do and why they are important. You also now have a sense of what’s coming next. Bottom line, there will be short-term traffic inconveniences in various parts of the East Side for the next year to 18 months. However, the East Side will be left with a dramatically improved infrastructure, a greatly improved environment and many streets paved that probably wouldn’t have been paved for a long, long time. Hopefully the results will be as successful as Hope Street’s seem to be.

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