$2.1 Billion Transportation Plan Skimps on Alternatives

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — About 20 miles of on-road bicycle lanes, shared-lane markings, bike boxes, bike signal loops and other bicycle infrastructure are coming to the city, but don’t put your Spandex shorts on just yet, as design and construction won’t begin for seven years.

This example is one of hundreds of tidbits included in the 378-page draft of Rhode Island's Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) for fiscal years 2017-2025. The TIP is a federally required master list of transportation projects likely to be built using U.S. Department of Transportation money. It includes highway, train, bus, bicycle, pedestrian and recreational trail projects.

The draft — along with an amendment to the previous TIP pertaining to fiscal 2016 — will receive public hearings May 26 at 2 and 6:30 p.m. at the Department of Administration's William E. Powers Building. Public comment will be accepted until June 26.

The TIP is required to provide a four-year, “fiscally constrained” plan for 2017-2020, meaning each project must be linked to reasonably anticipated funding sources. The state estimates it will have $2.1 billion of funding available during the four-year time frame. Rhode Island's State Planning Council opted to include further information for fiscal years 2021-2025 to inform the public and municipalities about projects in the pipeline.

Projects were selected from prioritized lists generated by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), and the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC). TAC membership includes local officials, state agencies, transportation interest organizations, members of the public and the Narragansett Tribe.

The TIP includes a transportation equity benefit analysis that assesses the distribution of transportation investments across select population groups, including minorities, low-income populations, school-age children, aging individuals, people with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency. The analysis begins on page 60.

Climate change is also addressed in the TIP. It cites a Statewide Planning Program paper titled "Vulnerability of Transportation Assets to Sea Level Rise," which finds that up to 85 miles of roads, numerous coastal bridges, rail segments, bicycle infrastructure, ports and harbors, and RIPTA routes and stops will flood at high tide at 5 feet of sea-level rise. As a result, RIDOT’s 10-year strategic plan and the draft TIP factored in the impacts of sea-level rise when vetting projects.

Only 1.8 percent of TIP funds will go toward pedestrian and bicycle projects from 2017-2020. (TIP draft)

Highway Projects
Highway projects, such as bridge maintenance and replacement, and pavement work received the lion’s share of TIP funding. The draft TIP emphasizes the preservation of existing infrastructure, especially bridges, as a means to avoid more expensive long-term costs.

While the draft TIP claims to avoid expanding the state’s network of roads and highways, additional lanes are planned for Interstate 295 between exits 3 and 4 northbound and exits 6 and 4 southbound, along with the construction of a new interchange to accommodate Citizens Bank's proposed corporate campus in Johnston.

Additional lanes are planned for I-95 between exits 18 and 19; new turning lanes will be added to various intersections across the state; exit ramps will be expanded to prevent cars from backing up onto highways; and some roads, such as Coronado Road in Warwick, will receive additional lanes.

Projects of note include:

I-295 Citizen’s Bank Interchange, Johnston, 2016. This project will build a new interchange to provide access to the proposed Citizens Bank's corporate campus planned for a parcel of woodland in Johnston. This project is listed as a traffic-safety measure in the 2016 TIP amendment; $3 million of public money has been allocated to accommodate the bank's decision to build in an inaccessible area, half the overall cost of the new interchange.

I-95 Viaduct Northbound, Providence, 2017-2021. This project will replace the existing structure, which is in poor condition, and attempt to relieve congestion where I-95 meets the 6-10 Corridor. The estimated cost is $110 million.

6-10 Project, Providence, 2019-2024. This project will reconstruct the 6-10 Connector near Olneyville and the 6-10 Corridor between the connector and the I-95 viaduct. RIDOT is attempting to secure additional money to incorporate a bus rapid transit feature. Alternative approaches to reconstructing the highway are being studied, including its conversion to a capped highway or to a boulevard. The capped-highway option, with the transit feature, could cost $975 million. The cost of the boulevard conversion option has yet to be determined by RIDOT, but construction and maintenance costs would be less, according to the agency.

Ttransportation Alternatives
Pedestrian and bicycle projects are categorized as “transportation alternatives” in the draft TIP. This line item was allocated $38 million in TIP money during the fiscally constrained years of 2017-2020 — just 1.8 percent. Many bike and pedestrian projects aren't funded until 2021-2025, meaning they're not linked to specific funding sources, making their future less certain.

Additional transportation alternative projects, such as sidewalk repair, replacement and upgrades, are indirectly included in other TIP projects such as road repaving work.

Here is a chronological list of many of the pedestrian projects categorized as transportation alternatives:

Safe routes to school infrastructure, Barrington, Cranston, East Providence, Narragansett, Smithfield, Warren, Westerly and Woonsocket, 2016-2020.

Columbia Heights streetscape, Charlestown, 2016. This project will make pedestrian improvements and add a bus shelter to serve a low-income housing development.

Main Street handicap accessible sidewalk, Hopkinton, 2016. This project includes the design and construction of a sidewalk along Main Street from Highview Avenue to Spring Street.

Water Street sidewalks and streetscape, Warren, 2016. This project will add an ADA compliant sidewalk from Route 114 to Campbell Street, and includes streetscape improvements.

Smith’s Castle transportation alternative project, North Kingstown, 2016. This project will widen the entrance to Smith's Castle where Richard Smith Drive meets Post Road, create a loop road, and build a new, downsized parking area to accommodate bus parking.

Exchange Street enhancement, Pawtucket, 2016. This project includes sidewalk replacement, crosswalks, street trees and uplighting.

Citywalk, Providence, 2017-2018. This project will create a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streetscape connecting India Point Park to Roger Williams Park.

Cranston Street enhancements, Cranston, 2017. This project improves safety at the intersection of Atwood Avenue rotary to the Route 37 overpass.

Sprague Street sidewalks, Portsmouth, 2017-2018. This project will add a sidewalk on the north side of Sprague Street from East Main Road to Bristol Ferry Road, and on both sides of Sprague Street from Education Lane to East Main Road.

Broad Street regeneration project, Central Falls, Cumberland, and Pawtucket, 2018-2020. This project will reconstruct the full length of Broad Street including pavement, stormwater drainage, turning and parking lanes, sidewalks, streetscape amenities and shade trees.

Exchange Street sidewalk widening, Providence, 2018, 2021-2023. This project will make complete streets enhancements to Exchange Street, between Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station.

West Side Road sidewalks, New Shoreham, 2018. This project will add sidewalks along West Side Road between Ocean Road and the entrance to Champlin Marina.

Post Road curbing and sidewalks, North Kingstown, 2019. This project will add sidewalks on both sides of Post Road between Camp Avenue and West Main Street.

Main Street improvements, Woonsocket, 2019. This project will add an elongated bump out for pedestrian crossings, crosswalks, ADA ramps, bike parking facilities, shared lane markings, signage and street trees.

Purgatory Road sidewalk installation, Middletown, 2021-2022. This project will add a sidewalk along Purgatory Road between the Atlantic Beach District and Second Beach.

Thames and Spring streetscape improvements, Newport, 2021-2025. This project will improve sidewalks, roadway, and drainage systems.

East Main Road sidewalks, Portsmouth, 2021. This project will add ADA compliant sidewalks from Turnpike Avenue to Boyd’s Lane.

Safe routes to school infrastructure, Newport, 2021. This project will add sidewalks to Bedlow Avenue and Hillside Avenue from Admiral Kalbfus Road to Broadway.

Bay Street streetscape improvements, Westerly, 2022. This project will add streetscape enhancements to the historic village of Watch Hill.

Waterplace and Riverwalk repairs and improvements, Providence, 2022-2025. This project will address deteriorating pedestrian infrastructure.

Cathedral Square enhancement project, Providence, 2023. This project will make improvements to Cathedral Square and its adjoining walkways.

Downtown Providence pedestrian wayfinding project, Providence, 2025. This project adds 100 signs to existing light poles.

Bike Projects
Most bicycle infrastructure projects included in the draft TIP fall within the 2021-2025 time frame and, therefore, aren't linked to specific funding sources. Additional bike lanes could be added during repaving projects included in the TIP.

Here is a chronological list of many of the bicycle projects categorized as transportation alternative projects:

South County Bike Path extension, Narragansett, 2016-25This project will evaluate on-road and off-road alternatives for the final segment of the South County Bike Path to Narragansett Town Beach.

Blackstone River Bikeway, segment 8A, 8B-1, 8B-2, and 8C, Woonsocket, 2016-2019, 2023. This project will continue the Blackstone River Bikeway toward the Massachusetts border.

Trestle Trail, west section, two bridges, Coventry, 2016-2017. This project will build bridges over Bucks Horn Brook and Moosup River for a recreational trail and bike lane. Paving of the bike path isn't scheduled in the TIP until 2023-2024.

Woonasquatucket River Greenway corridor enhancements, Providence, 2017-2020. This project will create a higher quality extension of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway from Park Street to Aleppo Street.

East Main Road shared use path, Portsmouth and Middletown, 2021-2022. This project will create a shared-use path for pedestrians and bicyclists within the East Main Road corridor, from Turnpike Road to Hedley Street, including signal improvements.

Shared-use path along Newport Secondary Rail corridor, Newport, 2021-2024. This project will create a continuous, off-road, rail-with-trail path between CCRI Newport and downtown.

Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge, bike and pedestrian access, Jamestown, 2022. This project adds bicycle access to the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge, and begins Phase I of the Conanicut Island Greenway Trail System.

East Bay Bike Path extension to Warren Bike Path, Warren, 2022. This project initiates a study for a half-mile bike path within the former Warren/Fall River Railroad right of way connecting the East Bay and Warren bike paths.

Washington Secondary Bike Path extension, Cranston and Providence, 2022 and 2024. This project will study, design and build a 1-mile, off-road, multi-use trail to connect Olneyville Square to the terminus of the Washington Secondary Bike Path terminus in Cranston.

East Bay Bike Path bridge replacements, Barrington and Warren, 2022, 2024-2025. This project will replace the bike path bridges over the Barrington River.

Blackstone River Bikeway, segment 3A-1 and 3A-2, Pawtucket, 2023-2025. This project studies and completes unfinished segments of the Blackstone River Bikeway in Pawtucket.

Mount Hope Bay bicycle improvements, Portsmouth, 2023. This project will provide for safety improvements and signage to Anthony Road and Boyd’s Lane in Portsmouth, and to the Mount Hope Bridge to better accommodate and improve safety for bicyclists.

Trestle Trail, west section, paving, Coventry, 2023-2024. This project will pave the 5-mile bicycle and pedestrian path from Log Bridge Road to the Connecticut border. The project includes a parallel equestrian trail.

Aquidneck Island Bikeway, Melville Connector, Portsmouth, 2024. This project includes design and construction of a shared-use bicycle and pedestrian facility linking West Main Road at Old West Main Road to Burma Road at Stringham Road.

Ten Mile River Greenway, segment 1-4, East Providence, 2025. This project completes the remaining segments of the Ten Mile River Bikeway by continuing the shared-use path via the city-owned right-of-way along Turner Reservoir.

Transit Projects
Projects of note include:

Providence Station Transit Center, Providence, 2016. This project will create an expanded transportation center and bus hub serving rail and bus passengers. This vague item receives $35 million in lump-sum funding.

Travel plaza, Hopkinton, 2016. This project includes development and construction of a travel plaza on I-95 near exit 1.

Pawtucket/Central Falls train station, Pawtucket and Central Falls, 2016-2020. This project will create an infill station along the Northeast Corridor between Providence Station and South Attleboro Station (Mass.) and provide northerly connections to Boston and southerly connections to Providence Station, TF Green Airport and Wickford Junction.

Downtown Providence enhanced transit corridor, Providence, 2016-2020. This project will provide scheduled, frequent bus service through downtown Providence along a 1.4-mile corridor, connecting Providence Station to the hospital district.

Summer service, various locations, 2016-2025. This line item involves the start-up operations and further development of limited seasonal bus/rail/ferry services connecting major tourist attractions and recreational facilities along Narragansett Bay. It's anticipated that the initial service in fiscal 2016 will be limited to weekends during the summer at select locations, and depending upon usage and demand, could be expanded with additional locations and operations in subsequent years.

T-Link bus service, 2016-2025. This project will create RIPTA bus service connecting the state's three commuter rail stations that would supplement MBTA service gaps.

Commuter rail marketing, 2016-2025. This line item funds efforts to promote passenger rail, particularly at TF Green and Wickford Junction stations.

RIPTA passenger infrastructure enhancements, 2020-2025. This project will establish two new hubs in downtown Providence and six others throughout the state, improve bus-stop amenities, and address bus shelters, seating, signage and other amenities.

Water-Access Projects
Projects of note include:

Woonsocket River Landing, Woonsocket, 2023. This project will provide a river landing for tourist and excursion watercraft along the Blackstone River Bikeway at Cold Spring Park.

Ten Mile River Greenway parking lot and boat ramp, Pawtucket, 2024. This project will build a parking lot at the northern end of Parkside Avenue and a canoe ramp on Parkside Avenue south of Armistice Boulevard.

Stakeholder Concerns
Generally speaking, pedestrian, bicycle and transit advocates were disappointed by the amount of money dedicated to their preferred modes of transportation.

“With climate change progressing, the TIP is not a game changer for our transit system,” said Barry Schiller, a member of the RIPTA Riders Alliance and a former RITPA board member. “It basically keeps RIPTA going as is with some innovative marketing ideas, and does nothing to improve the commuter rail."

Schiller said commuter rail infill stations are needed in communities south of Providence such as East Greenwich and Cranston, and that a bigger commitment should be made to complete the Pawtucket/Central Falls Train Station project. The project's current funding allocation — about $19 million — is unlikely to be enough, he said.

Schiller was optimistic about the program to provide summer transit services to popular tourist destinations, calling it innovative, and supported the marketing projects aimed at getting more people to commute by rail and bus.

Still, over the 10-year period, the TIP isn't very encouraging, he said. "Beyond really going after improving the bridges, there is no game-changer here, not even in light of climate change considerations," Schiller said. "For example, though there are huge subsidies available for electrifying our auto fleet, there is no apparent progress or interest in electrifying our commuter rail ... nor much sign of attempting to reduce vehicle miles traveled, or promote more energy efficient urban core redevelopment."

Bicycling advocates were pleased with the projects included in the TIP, but disappointed by delayed start dates and by the exclusion of some projects entirely. Alex Krogh-Grabbe, program director for the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, said the projects included in the TIP are high priority projects and that they are properly sequenced, but called it “unfortunate” that some projects wouldn’t be happening for close to a decade.  

“There are only a handful of bike projects that will happen in the next four to five years,” he said. “While I understand the logic of front-loading bridge repairs to avoid higher overall costs in the long run, the scale of bike projects is totally different.”

According to Krogh-Grabbe, allocating a few million more dollars a year to bicycle projects would have a major impact on the state’s bike infrastructure network while having little to no impact on the state's ability to maintain, repair or build bridges.

He's particularly frustrated that the Blackstone River Bikeway in Pawtucket wouldn’t begin moving forward for another eight years. He also said he regrets that the South County Bike Path connection to the University of Rhode Island isn't included in the draft document.

Martina Haggerty, associate director of special projects in Providence’s Planning & Development department and a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee, said she is “thrilled” that projects like Citywalk and improvements to the Woonasquatucket River Greenway and Washington Secondary Bikeway were included in the draft TIP, but noted that the city submitted more than 50 projects, many of which weren't included.

“The TAC had to make tough decisions given the limited budget,” she said.

Bari Freeman, executive director of Bike Newport, said she is disappointed by the small number of projects that made it into the TIP, especially from Aquidneck Island, and that the projects that did make it are mostly scheduled for far in the future.

“The budget for transportation alternatives is a slice of a fraction of the total TIP budget,” she said.

Freeman said many of Aquidneck Island's bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure proposals address urgent safety concerns. Along some stretches of East and West Main roads, for example, her organization advises even experienced cyclists to dismount and walk rather than risk their life in traffic.

“These choke points should be addressed today, but are dated 2021 in the TIP,” she said. "Danger zones should be placed as a higher priority."

The Melville Connector project in Portsmouth has received approval and is “ready to go,” Freeman said, but won’t be built until 2024. Bike access to the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge, a bridge built with bike lanes in mind, won’t be available until 2022.

“These are low-cost high-return solutions,” Freeman said. She noted that bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improves safety, attracts millennial workers and tourists, reduces human impacts on the environment, and results in less wear and tear on roadways.

Schiller also expressed concerns that some transit projects may be over funded and must be better explained before the draft TIP is approved. For instance, he believes that the $17 million allocated for the downtown Providence enhanced transit corridor is far too generous, and suggested alternative or complementary plans be considered.

“This project should be questioned by taxpayer groups,” he said.