McKee declares damaged section of Cliff Walk a disaster emergency

Declaration required to pursue federal emergency funding to make repairs after last year’s collapse

By: - June 13, 2023 4:12 pm

The collapsed portion of the Cliff Walk in Newport as viewed from south of Webster Street is shown on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Gov. Dan McKee Tuesday issued a Declaration of Disaster Emergency, opening the process for the state to apply for federal assistance to repair structural damage to Newport’s Cliff Walk resulting from a collapse last year.

Comprehensive repairs to the section of the famed ocean overlook that partially collapsed in March 2022 and again last December could cost up to $13.75 million, according to state estimates. The city of Newport has closed a section of the Cliff Walk between Narragansett Avenue and Webster Street for the foreseeable future.

Signs at Narragansett Avenue detour pedestrians around the closed section of the Cliff Walk. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

The collapse was caused by sea erosion and exacerbated by severe inclement weather incidents, city officials said.

The declaration from the governor allows the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to apply for Emergency Relief (ER) assistance from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The ER program provides federal funding for key infrastructure damaged by natural disasters or catastrophic events.

McKee directed RIDOT to work with Newport officials to secure $10 million in federal disaster relief funding to make repairs to the Cliff Walk, which was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1975. A 2018 study by a Salve Regina University econometrics class estimated 1.3 million people visit the Cliff Walk annually.

“Newport’s Cliff Walk is one of Rhode Island’s top attractions, drawing over a million visitors per year. The collapse and the partial closure could cause significant harm to Newport tourism, a top driver of the local economy,” McKee said in a release. 

“The impacted area is now closed because it is at risk of further erosion and collapse, which poses a threat to public safety.”

McKee thanked Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong for his advocacy and engagement with state officials and U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse to pursue solutions.

On behalf of the city of Newport, Reed, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, and Whitehouse, a Newport resident, have jointly submitted a $5 million earmark request to the Appropriations Committee for engineering design and planning services for repairs and resiliency enhancements at the Cliff Walk. The lengthy earmark process requires approval by the Senate, the House of Representative, and the President. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has already signaled his intention to cap the total amount for earmarks at 0.5% of discretionary funding in the coming fiscal year, down from 1% in 2022.

In 2013, Reed and Whitehouse helped secure $5.13 million in federal ER funding to make repairs to the Cliff Walk after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast in October of 2012. Over the years, a combination of state and federal funding has helped finance improvements and repairs to portions of the Cliff Walk battered by erosion, waves, storms, and tidal surges. In 2009, Reed and Whitehouse delivered a $487,000 federal earmark to help upgrade the Cliff Walk.

“When I took office at the end of last year I immediately began seeking help to fix the Cliff Walk,” Khamsyvoravong said in a statement. “Restoring this iconic American vista for future generations to enjoy will require local, state and federal partnership, which the Governor is opening a pathway to with this declaration.”

 The entire length of the Cliff Walk runs 3.5 miles along the Atlantic Ocean passing by Gilded Age mansions and the campus of Salve Regina University. A 2016 Salve Regina University study found that Newport visitors who included the Cliff Walk in their visit accounted for $90.5 million in direct and indirect spending while in the city. 


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Janine L. Weisman
Janine L. Weisman

Rhode Island Current Editor-in-Chief Janine L. Weisman served as a reporter and editor during her 25-year career in the newsroom of The Newport Daily News. She is an adjunct journalism faculty member at Roger Williams University.