Who's Inspecting the Inspectors?
With the public debate focused on how to pay for much-needed repairs to Rhode Island’s deteriorating bridges, this week we begin a two-part series on how taxpayer money is being spent on existing projects. The $30-million Apponaug Circulator project is on time and on budget, but is it being built to specification? One Warwick resident who is a veteran of the construction industry says no and asks the question: Where are the project’s inspectors? Jim Hummel sits down with the director of Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation for his take on this project - and larger changes he’s making at the D.O.T.
Click here to view addition excerpts of Jim's interview with Peter Alviti.
If you have to travel through Apponaug these days, let’s just say: you’re in for a challenge.
For more than a year crews have been working on a $30-million project aimed at realigning what has traditionally been one of Rhode Island’s more difficult traffic patterns to navigate.
Cote: ``It’s actually producing a dangerous situation because if you don’t want to destroy your car you’ll transit the Apponaug Circular project very cautiously.’’
Rob Cote lives 5 minutes from the Apponaug Circulator and travels through it several times a day. For 25 years Cote had worked throughout New England in the construction industry as a quality assurance manager. While he specializes in high-rise buildings and structural steel he also knows inside-out the Blue Book - Rhode Island DOT’s Standard Specifications for Road and Bridge Design.
Cote: ``The field conditions would suggest that clearly the code is not being followed.’’
Cote said he first noticed a lack of dust mitigation at the beginning of the project - this car dealership’s inventory was covered every day with a thick layer of dust, so much so that the owner had to hire someone to wash the cars every day.
Cote’s scrutiny then extended to the way crews were filling trenches that have been cut and refilled around the circulator.
Cote: ``These codes are very, very simple and clear understanding English. When you read certain specifications of the code and you go out in the field and you look at the field condition, it’s clearly obvious that the code was not followed. And what becomes really problematic is that when you have two layers of oversight minimum, possibly three layers of oversight - from the contractor’s quality personnel, to the state D.O.T. field quality assurance inspectors and the state D.O.T. engineers it begs the question and it’s reasonable to ask the question: Why does the road look like that when you have three levels of oversight? Where clearly it’s contrary to what‘s required in the code.’’
Cote said he witnessed crews repeatedly doing so-called bucket strikes along this stretch of road leading into Apponaug.
Cote: ``The bucket strike is a backhoe taking the end of the bucket and slamming it into the ground to try and flatten out the earth that is put back in the trench. So on a regular basis I would see them performing bucket strikes with people from the Department of Transportation watching this take place. It’s strictly prohibited by code.And the reasons it’s prohibited by code, Jim, is you can’t compact evenly - and what takes place after you cover that trench, you have uneven settling which the end result is that a road that has dips and waves in it. If you transit the Apponaug circulator as it is now, even though it’s temporary, the first thing you notice is the dips and the waves in the road, which are clearly a result in the improper compaction.’’
Alviti: ``We’re responsible ultimately.’’
Peter Alviti was appointed head of the Department of Transportation in February by Governor Gina Raimondo. In a wide-ranging interview with The Hummel Report last week Alviti addressed specific concerns about the Apponaug project, and talked more generally about trying to change the way the department does business.
He said in all projects the Department has three main areas of concentration: scope, budget and schedule. He says Apponaug is on time and on budget and 40 percent complete.
Alviti: ``In general I have to say we’re pretty pleased with the Apponaug project, the way it’s progressing. Construction projects of this scale are generally going to be disruptive to people’s lives and businesses and we tried to minimize that as much as possible.’’
We showed him our video and some of Cote’s concerns about compaction and dust mitigation - and the issue of who is inspecting the inspectors? Alviti said on any given day the Apponaug project has eight to 10 inspectors.
Alviti: ``They’re our eyes and ears on the ground and charged with making sure that the specification and the plans are being applied on the site. In addition to that we have resident engineers and project managers now and this is a relatively new concept here at DOT - didn’t exist in the past - we’re implementing it now. The object of which is to bring information closer to us here in administration as to those three elements of every project that we’re doing.
Hummel: ``Would it be fair to say, though, D.O.T. has had issues with inspectors over the years, has it not?’’
Alviti: ``Oh yes, absolutely. Absolutely.’’
Hummel: Is that was something that was on your radar screen? When you came in as director.’’
Alviti: ``It’s on our radar screen and there are a couple that aren’t here anymore.’’
So what about what he saw in our video?
Alviti: ``From that video there were two areas - one in particular , over a gas trench that I saw about a 10-foot section of that I would be concerned with and that our guys are going to be charged with going and taking a compaction test, another one in that specific area. Is there a possibility that in the case of that 10-foot section that either somebody’s eyes were off it or they were away looking at another trench being filled, whatever. Don’t know. Can’t speak to that right now. I do know in the particular picture you showed me that does not meet our spec. We will be out there testing that and it will be replaced if it doesn’t pass the test.’’
Hummel: ``We’ve gotten from there to here because I’m sitting across talking to you. You got guys down there with eyes every day.’’
Hummel: ``Why wouldn’t they have seen that - and that bubbled up. ‘’
Alviti: ``That’s a good question.’’
Hummel: ``I understand the director doesn’t hear everything but it takes me getting here to show you video, they’re looking at it every day.’’
Alviti: ``Right, so that’s a very good questions.Sometimes even when everyone on the job site is doing their job there could be a case where a utility company is in there just out of their line of site and momentarily for that 10-foot section didn’t do the right thing that can happen. That can happen even if everyone is properly doing their job.’’
As for the numerous trenches that have been cut and patched around the entire circulator, Alviti said they are only temporary and that the department will go back next year to re-excavate down a full 12 to 18 inches before a final coat of pavement is laid down at the end of the project.
Alviti: ``The covering that you’re putting back on top of those is temporary. It’s only meant to last until you work your way up into the pavement, the sub base level, the pavements levels, the higher utility levels, the ones that fall closer to the surface. Those kinds of improvements are done at the later stages until ultimately the finished pavement is put on.’’
Cote: ``I want somebody to show me anywhere in the code where it allows for deviation from the code for a temporary fix. And in fact the code specifically states about utility trenches that have been cut, how they have to be finished and adjacent to the surrounding surface. There’s no allowance for a temporary surface. All temporary surfaces are supposed to be in the condition as if it was a finished, paved road.’’
We asked for - and received- from DOT thousands of pages of field reports for the past 90 days. Most days there are detailed reports from both the contractor’s inspectors and D.O.T’s. Some showed there was compaction going on, but other reports clearly state there was no compaction testing.
And while the dust has gotten better the reports we reviewed showed there was often no dust control at a reprocessing plant brought in to crush old pavement. site.
Hummel: ``Isn’t that something an inspector would have picked, though, up if you have somebody on the site. You’ve got a guy who’s having a daily issue.’’
Alviti: ``Pretty visible, although I must say, the issue never rose to the point where the complaints came into our office here. They were handled at the site level, there was a problem, they did see it; it got a little bit ahead of them but once it was brought to the attention of the people out there that it was really affecting, for example, that car dealership, they went in and they did what was necessary to bring it into compliance.’’
Hummel: ``Well, it never really rose to our level: this guy’s probably complaining to people, he doesn’t know to pick up the phone and say, let me call the director of D.O.T and get some juice here.’’
Alviti: ``Nor should he have to. Nor should he have to. These are the kinds of things that should be addressed at the site level:. In this case I think it may have gotten a little bit5 ahead of the people that were out there.
Cote says the compaction issue is not limited to D.O.T. He took this video of a crew from the Providence Water Supply Board installing a fire hydrant on Friendship Street in September.
Cote: ``After they put the fire hydrant in and tied in the piping, they just took the backhoe and you see the video, they just filled up the trench with the excavated material and they didn’t do any compaction whatsoever.’’
Cote says this is what it looked like two days after they installed it. And this is what it looked like when we visited the site two weeks ago.
So we asked the supply board’s deputy director Gregg Giasson about it last week. He said the crew’s boss reported it did use a compactor, even though there isn’t one anywhere near the hole. Cote says he watched the entire operation and never saw one. And Giasson watched the video Cote took but never spoke directly with anybody on the crew before our interview.
Hummel: ``As the director, wouldn’t you want to speak to the people on the job? And to pull the guys in and say: `Did you have a compactor, did you follow code?’ And you didn’t do any of that. Right?’’
Giasson: ``No, I talked to the director of my department and he feels comfortable that they did the work.’’
Hummel: ``Was he there that day?’’
Hummel: ``Did you talk to anybody who was there that day?’’
Giasson: ``I didn’t, my director did.’’
Hummel: ``He did, but he wasn’t out there. Nobody has spoken to anybody any eyewitnesses. You didn’t pull in any crew members.’’
Giasson: ``My director did, that’s what he does. ‘’
Hummel: ``We’re not talking to him, are we?’’
Hummel: ``Okay, so why aren’t we talking to him?’’
Giasson: ``Because you’re talking to me.’’
Back in Apponaug, Alviti said he is working hard to change the way D.O.T. fundamentally approaching road construction projects.
Hummel: ``If you don’t do the right preparation you may not see it a year, twoyears, but long after the guys who are on the job are who knows where, then you’ve got problems with the roads and who is accountable and I think that’s the question a lot of people have.’’
Alviti: ``And that’s a proper question to be asking and it’s one that we’re addressing here at D.O.T. We’re adding a dimension here that’s never been here before. By simply having every resident engineer that’s responsible for projects like this come in here every month and report on project status.’’
Cote: ``Everybody points the finger at everyone else and everyone blames the weather. And that’s what happens in New England. `Well we have bad winters, we have uplift, we have everything.’ Last I checked they get snow in Vermont, there’s weather in Vermont, there’s uplift in Vermont. But you don’t see roads in Vermont that looks like roads in Rhode Island. And I think it’s a mentality that has happened for at least a generation if not more, that cutting corners is okay because at the end of the day we’re all going to get paid.’’
In Warwick, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.