NORTH SMITHFIELD – The structures have been called, “canopeners,” by some: low-seated bridges and train trestles that have long been the enemy of oblivious truckers who aim to pass through.
Every few months for years, at least one truck gets stuck beneath two such bridges on St. Paul Street, holding up other travelers and costing two neighboring towns money as workers are sent to free the vehicles, according to town officials.
“We all know it’s a nightmare when this happens,” said Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski during a discussion of the problem at a Town Council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Zwolenski said he reached out to Blackstone Town Administrator Dori Vecchio following the latest incident after another tractor-trailer got stuck under one of the bridges – situated right on the line between the two communities – in late July.
This week, resident Gail Denomme presented her research for a potential solution.
“She spotted this idea being used in Massachusetts,” said Town Council President John Beauregard. “I think it’s a fantastic idea.”
Denomme said that many communities have had success using hanging blankets that contain weighted tubes. The blankets are hung over the road in an area before tall trucks reach the low bridges and make a loud noise when hit, alerting drivers.
She noted that if one was hung just before the St. Paul’s Church, trucks could turn around in the church parking lot.
“The city of Worcester has several,” Denomme said. “They’ve had a lot of success with them right before the low bridges.”
Denomme said one issue with the potential solution is that the blankets can cause problems for some emergency vehicles carrying ladders that increase the height.
“You have the fire trucks that are going to be going down St. Paul Street,” she said, noting that still, “It works very well all over the United States. It is used in 50 states.”
Both bridges, at heights of 11 feet 8 inches and 11 feet 5 inches respectively, are situated on the Massachusetts side of the state line. In 2019, an 11 month span saw 18 trucks immobilized between the two, a Providence and Worcester Railroad bridge and an adjacent pedestrian bridge for the Blackstone River Greenway.
“The reality is these truck drivers aren’t paying attention to the signs,” said Town Councilor Paul Vadenais, pointing to another low-lying bridge where the vehicles get stuck even more frequently, by Chan’s restaurant in Woonsocket. “Even the flashing lights don’t always work. The lights get broken from the trucks.”
Zwolenski said that Vecchio contacted the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to secure more signage for the state road, and has obtained duplicates for the Rhode Island side of the bridge. But he agreed that, “Nobody looks at signs.”
“They’re looking at phones. They’re using GPS,” said Zwolenski, noting that the bridge-wedged vehicles, “bring interstate commerce to a halt.”
“Meanwhile, our residents are suffering. The residents of Blackstone are suffering tremendously,” the administrator said. “We can look at substantial fines.”
Beauregard said he’s not sure if fines are the answer, since the act is always unintentional.
“Nobody wants to shear off the top of their truck,” he said.
Zwolenski pointed out that fines could help the town to recoup costs for labor of town employees who work to free the trucks.
While the best solution remains unclear, all seemed to agree that some action must be taken.
“They’ve been occurring once every couple of months, and it’s getting worse,” said Denomme, adding that the occurrences are roughly even coming both ways: both into and out of North Smithfield.
Zwolenski said he’s optimistic that town leaders will be able to work together to find a solution.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a great relationship with Blackstone. I don’t see any reason why we can’t solve this problem.”