A Hummel Report Investigation
The Quonset Business Park is one of the few bright spots for economic development in Rhode Island these days, attracting new companies and jobs. But some who located here are questioning a brand new $4.2 million taxpayer-funded bridge that links one side of the park with the other. This week Jim Hummel sits down with the park's managing director for the background on the bridge.
Hummel: ``It is one of the few bright spots for economic development in Rhode Island these days. But even some of the companies here at the Quonset Business Park are questioning why millions of tax dollars were spent on a bridge linking one side of the park to the other.
If you haven't been to Quonset recently, you're in for a big surprise. For starters, it's a lot easier to get to, thanks to a new roadway leading into both Quonset and Davisville. The park is now headquarters to big businesses like Ocean State Job Lot - and smaller companies, some of which have a national or international clientele.
King: ``We have a burgeoning business park here. We have 8,800 employees, 160 companies down here.''
Steven King heads up the Quonset Development Corporation, which since 2005 has controlled and developed Quonset, with a staff of 43 and an annual budget of $8 million.
King: ``We have 3,270 acres in total - of that there's about 1,400 that can be used for development; we've developed about 900 of it, so that leaves a balance of about 500 that's in play today.''
On the road to Davisville, where tens of thousands of new cars make their way in and out of Rhode Island every year, you'll also see a brand new $4 million bridge - that has raised a few eyebrows. A handful of companies inside the park have contacted the Hummel Report since construction began in early 2010, wondering about the bridge and why it was being built.
Kazarian: ``It's a great industrial park with a lot of businesses and we actually have a lot of customers here.''
Richard Kazarian likes Quonset so much he moved his industrial supply business here six years ago.
Kazarian: ``We saw the new road, (Route) 403, come in, the park has grown, businesses come in - there's actually a lot of good, interesting businesses here.''
But Kazarian and others who contacted us are baffled why the corporation spent millions of dollars to connect one side of the park to the other - when he says drivers can access other roads to accomplish the same goal.
Kazarian: ``The first reaction was: we nicknamed it the bridge to nowhere. I guess there is the question the railway that goes through the park and safety concerns - but it's only every now and then that the train goes through with the automobiles coming in by the carriers and so we don't really see the need for stimulus money to pay for a bridge that is very questionable in need.''
So we sat down with the park's managing director this week for some answers.
He says 80 percent of the bridge was paid for with federal stimulus money. Quonset picked up the remaining 20 percent, primarily out of bond money Rhode Island voters had passed back in 2004 for improvements to the park.
King: ``Part of the issue with the bridge is No. 1, safely - there's a lot of vehicle conflict with rail. There's an existing crossing that we're going to eliminate that has a double rail track, which is very difficult for people to navigate safely across.''
Hummel: ``For many years people have survived with going if they wanted to get back, you just go up to Route 1, come around, 403 and you're back.''
King: ``Right, but if you're further down the park here, you have to exit the park out on Post Road, which is a busier section of town, and we don't want to be driving traffic out of the business park out onto Post Road to come back down in the park. The overpass now is going to make it safe and efficient for both vehicle traffic and for rail traffic in and out of the park.''
The original plan called for a much bigger - and more expensive bridge - at about $10 million. But it was scaled back after discussions with people who live in nearby neighborhoods concerned about size and lighting.
King said the revised project came in on time - at just about a year and a half - and a quarter million (dollars) under budget. The corporation received permission from the feds to spend $106,000 of that (unspent) money on landscaping around the project.
Kazarian isn't convinced.
Kazarian: ``We've been here six years and haven't had to use it. If the railroad tracks that go through the center of the park are continually carrying railroad cars, and we can't get across the tracks, then maybe we need the bridge, but right now we don't.''
King says the rail traffic has, in fact, more than doubled since 2007 - some of it splitting and going to Quonset, the rest to the auto port at Davisville. More importantly, he says, the new bridge will help him attract prospective new tenants on that end of the park.
Hummel: ``If that stimulus money had not been available would you go forward with this anyway?''
King: ``We would have. We would have. So the stimulus money now has allowed us to obviously complete additional projects that have fallen off of our list.''
Hummel: ``So you would have taken $3.8 million of your own reserves, how would you have paid for that if it had been your money?''
King: ``We had money in the bond issue still, the $48 million bond issue. We're about wiping out those funds now. There's a big roof project that we're doing now, for example we wouldn't have been able to do if we spent the money on the bridge.''
Hummel: ``Some people have called it the Bridge to Nowhere. You would call it what?''
King: ``I would call it the bridge that connects my park together and makes it safe for my tenants and residents to traverse back and forth. That's all I would call it, it's a very simple bridge - it's not a big elaborate, you know, structure that goes to nowhere. It simply connects one district of the business park to another.''
Hummel: ``But it's $4 million.''
King: ``It is, and we could go through the $900 billion that was spent on the stimulus and argue about every single project on the list, I'm sure.''
And for the record, the bridge officially opened to traffic last week.
At Quonset, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel