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Tolling Points

Rhode Island Gears Up for Iconic Bridge’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

By: 
Bill Cramer

A jubilee dinner, a re-dedication ceremony and an antique car show will be just a few of the highlights next year when the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the iconic Claiborne Pell Bridge.

Although the actual date—June 28, 2019—is still nearly a year away, anniversary preparations are well under way and RITBA is already picking up some media attention for a signature moment in its history.

“The bridge is the most iconic structure in Rhode Island, if not for all of New England,” Executive Director Buddy Croft told the Newport Daily News last month. “We’re fortunate to have kept that bridge in good repair [for 50 years]. We’re hoping it’ll last another 50 years.”

Now You Know You’re Home

The bridge, considered a part of RI 138, spans the East Passage of Narragansett Bay to connect Newport, on Aquidneck Island, to Jamestown, on Conanicut Island. Originally commissioned as the Newport Bridge, it was renamed in 1992 to honor U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell.

The Daily News rhapsodizes the bridge as an iconic structure, and a reference point for people across the state and the region.

“For commuters, the suspension bridge provides easy access across Narragansett Bay. For tourists, it is the gateway to the City-by-the-Sea,” the hometown paper states. “People descending into T.F. Green Airport strain for a peek of the structure, a first signal that they are back home.”

 

Croft described the bridge, which cost $57 million to complete in 1969, as an “economic engine” for the entire state of Rhode Island. “On average, 29,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, totaling 10.58 million a year. Traffic spikes when Newport hosts marquee events and on picture-perfect weather days,” The Daily News notes.

Time to Celebrate

RITBA is planning a whole series of events to mark the anniversary, with funding to be provided through private donations. One highlight: A Top of the Tower Ticket that will be offered to a limited number of Rhode Island organizations as a charitable draw, allowing the lucky winners to climb one of the bridge’s two 400-foot towers.

Discover Newport President and CEO Evan Smith will chair the celebration committee, and his account of his own recruitment shows Croft’s steadily enthusiastic hand in the endeavor.

“I got a call from Buddy Croft a couple weeks back,” Smith told The Daily News. “He was telling me about the anniversary concept, he was going on and on, and I was listening intently, thinking, ‘This is cool, this is great, I really like this.’ Then he stopped and popped the question,” asking whether Smith would serve as committee chair.

“As my wife would tell you, I talk too much; I’m a man of many words,” he recalled. But in this moment, “I was speechless. I was honored beyond words because there are so many worthy people in the state this could have been bestowed upon.”

While details of the anniversary celebration are still taking shape, “we want this to be a special celebration for residents, visitors and anyone who’s crossed the bridge,” Smith added. “This is for everyone. It’s about anyone who has an affinity for the bridge, and how the bridge has touched their life is pretty amazing.”

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