A Hummel Report InvestigationThey are hard to miss when you take the highway into Quonset Point: thousands of trees and bushes planted along the side of Route 403 - at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers. Jim Hummel hears from a North Kingstown woman who wants to know why the state is spending money on landscaping when the Department of Transportation struggles every year to fund other projects. And we have the response from D.O.T.
It has become the gateway to Quonset - a beautiful new highway leading straight into the business park.
If you haven't been on Route 403 lately it's undergone a transformation over the past several years, part of a $137 million construction project by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation that stretches back more than a decade.
Joyce Cushman lives in Wickford and travels 403 regularly. Extensive landscaping along the 3 1/2-mile stretch of road between Route 4 and Route 1 caught her eye.
Cushman: ``Mid-spring I noticed these beautiful mature trees, balled and burlapped along the side of the road. I certainly approve of green for our state, it's so beneficial for so many parts of our daily living, but the fact that our state is in such dire financial straits, why are we putting this money into landscaping and not caring for it.''
And she wondered about trees she saw - like this one - that had turned brown within weeks of being planted. Cushman was not alone in her observation as others have contacted The Hummel Report over the last month with similar questions.
So we went to the DOT's deputy chief engineer Bob Smith for some answers.
Smith: ``When we do a big project a lot of times there are commitments you make with the community - if you're going to put us through this construction, make it look nice when you're done.''
And that's meant thousands of trees and bushes - costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
Smith said this latest planting is the fourth phase of landscaping going back to the spring of 2005, when taxpayers spent an initial $800,000.
Two years later, another $900,000.
In 2008 a third contract cost $300,000.
And the latest round, which began last spring cost $650,000.
That's a total of $2.65 million for landscaping.
We asked Smith about the latest phase.
Hummel: ``Do you think overall $600,000 to $700,000 as people are driving by, would they think that as low cost? I know don't speak for the public. But is that in your mind...?''
Smith: ``It is, in terms of the amount of money that we spend on these projects. It's a $137 million project so in those terms, it's not a lot of money. If you just think of just $600,000 certainly to any of us that a lot of money but in terms of that project and impact it had on the local community, it's a small percentage.
It's an economic development project. We're trying to attract business to Quonset and the highway is providing better access. They want it to be a gateway and look nice. So a type of project like that is where you would see a higher level of landscaping.''
Hummel: ``What I've heard from some people driving by is you seem to have clusters of trees right in front of trees that have been there an awfully long time. So if you subtract that out of your mind and say what if we didn't have this here, what difference would it make for the investment of money? Can you address that?
Smith: ``Well, basically the trees are there for several reasons, one of them is to reduce the amount of area we have to mow, so you set up the beds to make it easy for our maintenance people to maintain the rest of the grass and a lot of it is to blend into the background but keep some of the invasives out that sometimes tend to encroach on the highway right of way and take over.
Joyce Cushman wanted to know about the trees that don't make it. Smith says the contractor, in this case a company from Newport, is responsible for the next several years for maintenance, grass mowing and replacement of any trees that die.
But that comes at a price. Over the next two years as part of the overall contract it will cost taxpayers $60,000 for grass mowing, $79,800 for what's called the `extended establishment period' and $217,000 for landscaping maintenance.
The contract says the company is required to mow the area once in the spring, and twice each in the summer and fall. And to replace dying trees.
Cushman: ``Does anyone follow up on that requirement because there are trees at the 403 exit as you approach Route 1 that have been turning brown for several years.''
Hummel: ``What if you had just seeded everything? What if it had just been all grass?
Smith: ``I mean there are some sections of our highway that that's all we've done. We can't do this everywhere it has to be on select areas, gateways like this. But then some of the outside material can grown in and take over.
Sometimes you go down 295 and you'll see trees blocking signs. It's a lot of work for our maintenance division to go back and keep that trim.''
Smith says he envisions Route 403 eventually looking like (Route) 138 between the Jamestown and Newport Bridges. This is what it looks like 20 years after the original landscaping.
Hummel: ``As people are driving that 2, 3, 4-mile stretch into Quonset and they're seeing all of this landscaping and they're thinking we had to close the Welcome Center down on 95, DOT is always in a pinch for money. Why are we spending money on this type of thing, this landscaping?
Is this a good investment? And how do you respond to that?''
Smith: ``It's a balance, we've got to balance all of our programs here at DOT, bridges, versus paving, versus safety and a small component of that we like to keep for landscaping and aesthetics, economic development - we're trying to help the state promote economic development - these are huge projects and part of it is what people see when they pass through our state or when they're entering the Quonset development.''
Hummel: ``I'm wondering when you're driving on that highway, you're paying attention now, but do you think the average person - and I don't know what the answer to the questions is - is going to be looking right and left and saying: oh I really like that tree or I don't, or they're focused on the road?''
Cushman: ``I think they're probably focused on the road, but from my perspective I thought the drive was very attractive prior to the planting of all of these trees, which to me is overkill.''
In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.