Since November of 2007, when the State of Rhode Island imposed weight restrictions and later axle limits on the aging Pawtucket Bridge, which carries I-95, state troopers have issued almost $7 million in bridge-related citations and fines to truck drivers and to the companies for whom they work. Drivers are ticketed $85 for failure to comply with posted bridge detour signs. Fines of $3,000 are also levied against the fleets that own those trucks for violating the 2008 law which imposed the current two-axle limit.

Things are not going to get better soon, either. Bridge replacement is not expected to be fully complete until June of 2013, although all traffic is expected to be crossing over new bridge structures by May of 2012.

“Over the past couple of years, we have found deficiencies in the structure of the bridge,” Frank Corrao, deputy chief engineer for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, told Fleet Owner. That explains why the state now restricts bridge use to vehicles weighing less than 18,000 pounds and/or having more than two axles.

What it does not explain is why truckers persist in making that, now very expensive, transit over the bridge. Corrao, like many fleet owners paying fines and the attorneys representing them, said he is not sure why drivers keep crossing.

“About 170,000 vehicles per day crossed the bridge before,” Corrao noted. “Normally, ten to eighteen percent of those would be trucks. [Now that the bridge restrictions are in place] there are a few detours truckers can take instead, like I-295 coming from the south. We have a detour sign posted ten to fifteen miles before the exit to 295 and there is also a big overhead, interactive warning sign as you get closer to the bridge. Even if a trucker comes from the City of Providence, we tell them to get off Route 95 and take the detour. Truckers do not have to go over the bridge.”

Attorney Patrick Quinlan, who has handled some 200 cases involving trucks on the Pawtucket Bridge, is less positive about the effectiveness of the warning signs. “The signage is confusing,” he told Fleet Owner, “and the bridge just looks like another overpass, not an actual bridge, even though the river flows some 90 feet below it.”

Open Road Driver’s Plan, a part of MultiService, which has been working with Quinlan on behalf of its customers, says that it is not the restrictions that are a concern, it is the signage. “Time and again we have heard complaints regarding inappropriate signage and communication of these restrictions,” noted an Open Road spokesperson. “If there are serious safety concerns associated with large vehicles traveling this bridge…it seems as though signage should be improved.”

According to Quinlan, the language of the signs is unclear, although he notes that the DOT has made improvements to the southbound signage, which “have made it a little better.” The sign reads: “Truck Detour, Pawtucket Bridge. Weight limit 18 tons. Axle limit 2 per unit. Use I-295 North—Exit 11, $3,000 fine.”

Quinlan also said that the southbound detour (where most truckers run into trouble) is “especially difficult and confusing. For heavy trucks, it is just terrible,” he says. “We have to get the word out to carriers”.

“Just terrible,” would probably also describe the bridge experiences that Tomas Hartley, vp of risk management for NAPA Transportation, Inc., has been having since the axle restrictions were imposed. NAPA is a 200-truck carrier which hauls groceries, produce and beer. According to Hartley, his fleet has been fined just less than $20,000 so far because, in spite of his driver training efforts concerning the Pawtucket Bridge, drivers continue to try to cross it.

“If the bridge is a hazard and has to be replaced, I can accept that,” he said. “If drivers have to detour around the bridge, so be it. I’ve trained every one of our drivers about the Pawtucket Bridge myself. The detour requirement is in our employee handbook and drivers have to read it and sign a document saying they’ve read it and understood what they read.

“I even have a sign on my office door,” Hartley told Fleet Owner. “It says ‘Ask me about the Pawtucket Bridge.’ My problem is, if a driver chooses to ignore the signs, why fine me when I’ve done everything I possibly can to make sure they are aware of the restrictions and the mandatory detour? I’ve tried getting drivers to pay us back, but then they just leave the company and I’m out a driver besides.”

Hartley sent a letter to the governor of Rhode Island back in February, he notes, describing the burden the fines are placing on his fleet and others, but has not received a reply. “We do a good job and we’ve managed through the recession, and now this,” he added.

And “this” seems likely to continue---the 24/7 patrol of the bridge by State Police, the drivers missing or ignoring the detour signs, the tickets, the fines, the appeals in court. According to a recent article in the Providence Journal, Rhode Island State Patrol officers have stopped an average of 417 trucks per month at the Pawtucket in the first half of 2010.

In the meantime, Frank Corrao’s department is making haste to get the bridge replacement done on time or even early, he says. It is a priority project. Bids have been opened and he hopes construction will start within the next two months.

“There is an incentive of up to $4.5 million total to finish the work up to 100 days early,” he explained, “and there is a similar disincentive of $45,000 per day for running overtime. We are trying to build the bridge with little to no impact on traffic.”

Since the bridge is actually two overpasses, one northbound and one southbound, that means replacing first one and then the other, with traffic sharing the first new overpass while the second is under construction. Until then, the best advice for truckers is to stay off the Route 95, Pawtucket bridge/overpasses until the work is done and the axle limit law has expired.