NORTH SMITHFIELD – After years of responding to trucks hitting the railroad bridge over St. Paul Street, town officials are discussing a new solution to deal with the problem on the North Smithfield side.
Last Tuesday, Sept. 7, Gail Denomme, a resident and member of the Zoning Board, approached the Town Council about installing a warning device on the North Smithfield side of the bridge. The device, known as a “blanket,” would alert drivers as they approach about the low clearance.
“It has tubes hanging down so if the truck is 11-foot-8 inches, it’s going to hit the tubes and they’re going to hear that before they get to the bridge,” she said.
Denomme said she spoke with Departments of Transportation in several states that have reported success using the devices.
“They’ve had success, but then they’ve had problems with kids going through the blankets. They get a high truck, they’re going to start going through the blankets back and forth,” she said.
Denomme is one of several individuals in town who has been advocating for the issue after Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski and other local officials renewed calls for action earlier this year. In August, Zwolenski reached out to newly appointed Blackstone Town Administrator Dori Vecchio to begin discussing a joint solution to the problem.
Those talks, he said last week, have been continuing.
“I think we’re going to have a great relationship with Blackstone. I don’t see why we can’t salvage the problem,” he said.
The problem with the warning blankets, according to Denomme, is that they often pose problems for first responders driving emergency vehicles. Denomme recommended installing the blanket close to the bridge, after the entrance to the parking lot of St. Paul Church, to allow emergency access to most of St. Paul Street without hitting the blanket.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” Council President John Beauregard said about the warning blanket.
Some councilors wanted to install the device further up St. Paul Street. Both Paul Vadenais and Kim Alves recommended installing it near the intersection with Mendon Road, with Alves warning it could create a turnaround problem if truck drivers realize their error too late.
“It’s great that we want to stop them, but I don’t think sending them up through a neighborhood is the solution,” she said.
Zwolenski said he’s been in discussions with Vecchio about increasing the signage in the area. Earlier this month, he said, he learned the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had created new signs to install on both the Massachusetts and Rhode Island sides of the bridge.
Truck drivers, he said, often use navigational apps that take them under the bridge without paying attention to the route.
“They’re using all this type of stuff to circumvent and get around. Meanwhile, our residents and Blackstone residents are suffering tremendously because of some moron that doesn’t know the height of their truck,” he said.
Zwolenski told The Breeze in August he considers it a problem for local commerce as well as residents.
Once there’s better signage or a blanket, he said, the town can look into increasing the fines for hitting the bridge.
“Everybody knows how to hit the pocket,” Denomme agreed. “Well, hit it big. $5,000 to $10,000. They know those numbers.”
In August, Blackstone Police Chief Gregory Gilmore told The Breeze his department has responded to about 18 bridge strikes and 20 calls to assist truck drivers turning around in the past year. There were probably more instances of trucks turning around on St. Paul Street that weren’t reported, he said.
Zwolenski said the two towns are continuing to work on the issue.