The Newport Pell Bridge Turns 50
May 31, 2019
The Preservation Society of Newport County joins all of Rhode Island in celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Newport Pell Bridge.
Construction on the bridge began on April 5, 1966, and it was officially opened to traffic on June 28, 1969. The bridge is now considered an icon of Narragansett Bay and revolutionized travel between Aquidneck island and the mainland. In recognition of the 50th anniversary on June 28, 2019, RITBA plans to host a variety of festivities and celebrations throughout the year. Among the events will be a community celebration at Ft. Adams State Park, a bridge rededication ceremony, an Antique Car Show/Bridge crossing and historical exhibits at various locations in our host communities. RITBA also plans to collaborate with higher education institutions to create learning programs.
No bridge toll dollars or gas tax revenue will be used to fund the celebration costs. Funding for the activities will be raised by private donations.
An icon of the state of Rhode Island, the Claiborne Pell Bridge, commonly called by locals the Newport Pell Bridge or Newport Bridge, is an important gateway to one of the most beautiful, historic cities in America. Built to replace a ferry service, the bridge greatly contributed to a surge in Newport’s tourism industry following its opening.
Although planning began in 1934, efforts to build the bridge were delayed until after World War II. In April of 1948, the state began serious efforts to construct a bridge over the East Passage of Narragansett Bay by creating Newport-Jamestown Civic Commission to explore options to finance and build a bridge. Construction of the approach piers began on April 5, 1966, and work on the tower piers and anchorages began one month later.
The $57 million Newport Bridge opened to traffic on June 28, 1969 with a ceremony at the toll plaza, which also houses RITBA’s headquarters. The bridge’s engineers won awards for excellence in engineering design from the New York Association of Consulting Engineers, the Consulting Engineers Council, the American Iron and Steel Institute, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. It remains the longest suspension bridge in New England.
Owned, operated and maintained by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, the bridge spans Narragansett Bay at a length of 1,601 feet (288 m). The overall length of the bridge is 11,247 feet (3,428 m). The East and West towers rise 400 feet (122 m) above the water surface, and the peak of the roadway deck is 215 feet (66 m). RI Route 138 crosses the four-lane bridge, two in each direction.
In 1992, the Rhode Island legislature renamed it the Claiborne Pell Bridge, in honor of the long-serving U.S. Senator Claiborne S. Pell of Newport. Pell is best known as the sponsor of the Pell Grant, which provides financial-aid funding to American college students.
Presently, it’s the only tolled property in the state. Toll revenue is earmarked for the payment of interest on the original bonds used to build the bridge as well as to provide for the repair and maintenance efforts to keep the bridge well maintained for the approximately 27,000 vehicles that cross it daily. In December 16, 2008, RITBA added electronic tolling equipment that allows E-ZPass users to pay for tolls in RI and in 15 states via transponder and an online account. Two of the lanes are dedicated for E-ZPass transponder users only, greatly reducing traffic at the toll booths where cash payments occur.
An image of the bridge appears on the back side of the Rhode Island version of the U.S. quarter, and the bridge is among the most photographed landmarks in Rhode Island.
On May 25, 2018, RITBA raised an American flag on the Claiborne Pell Bridge for the first time since its opening in June of 1969. The flag will be displayed on various holidays throughout the year.