RIDOT, City at Odds Over Future of 6-10 Connector

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation's preferred alternative would cap the existing highway in tunnels to allow for pedestrian and bike amenities and development above. The green space between Westminster Street and the 6-10 interchange pictured above is primarily dedicated to on- and off-ramps for routes 6 and 10 and, therefore, isn't appropriate for pedestrian use or development. (RIDOT)

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation's preferred alternative would cap the existing highway in tunnels to allow for pedestrian and bike amenities and development above. The green space between Westminster Street and the 6-10 interchange pictured above is primarily dedicated to on- and off-ramps for routes 6 and 10 and, therefore, isn't appropriate for pedestrian use or development. (RIDOT)

The city of Providence will begin designing its own preferred alternative to RIDOT’s capped highway at a July 19 community workshop

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — “No one in the city sees this as city versus suburbs; neighborhoods, city, state and region can and will benefit from this investment." That’s according to Bonnie Nickerson, the city's director of planning and development, speaking about the reconstruction of the 6-10 Connector.

While her statement may be true, it's increasingly clear that the process of choosing the design for the 6-10 Connector project will pit Nickerson’s planning department against the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), the latter of which has already selected a preferred design that the city doesn't entirely support.

Regardless of the design chosen for the project, the 6-10 Connector, near the neighborhood of Olneyville, will be reconstructed due its dilapidated infrastructure — seven of nine bridges included in the project's scope are classified as structurally deficient. With the project looming, the advocacy group Moving Together Providence formed to champion a highway-to-boulevard conversion that would replace the existing highway with a multi-modal boulevard. This design, according to supporters, would reintegrate the city's grid of streets, reconnecting neighborhoods long separated by the highways and reclaiming space for new development.

The city all but endorsed the boulevard concept in March, when it held a public forum on the 6-10 Connector’s reconstruction that featured three national experts on highway-to-boulevard conversions. At that event, RIDOT revealed its own “hybrid” design for the project, which would encapsulate the existing highway in tunnels and create space on top for open space and/or development. The design also creates opportunities to reconnect the neighborhoods divided by the highways.

Skeptics of RIDOT’s capped-highway design note that hiding the existing highway in tunnels doesn't address its rush-hour congestion, its sprawling exit and entrance ramps that occupy acres of otherwise developable city land or the the demand the highway creates for parking, which leaves the city crowded with surface parking lots. RIDOT’s rendering of its capped-highway project, for example, uses about half of the capped space for exit and entrance ramps. The capped-highway idea is also the most-expensive option.

Nickerson, of Providence’s planning department, and Peter Garino, RIDOT's deputy director, each presented about the topic at the June 21 "Power of Place Summit" organized by Grow Smart Rhode Island. The topic drew a capacity crowd for which additional seats had to be brought into the room.

Garino’s presentation focused on the constraints that the 6-10 Connector project must address. Highways 6 and 10 currently carry 97,000 cars daily between the connector in Olneyville and the Interstate 95 interchange near downtown. Two-thirds of those trips are "regional," which RIDOT defines as a trip having either an origin or destination, or both, outside the city. By this definition, a trip from Federal Hill to Pawtucket or Johnston is considered regional.

Garino’s presentation, nearly identical to earlier presentations RIDOT has given, summarized three design alternatives for the project: a nearly-identical rebuild of the existing infrastructure; a highway-to-boulevard conversion; and the capped highway. The identical rebuild has been generally dismissed due to the fact that it's similar in cost to the capped-highway design but doesn't offer any benefits to neighborhoods abutting the highway. Garino is also dismissive of the highway-to-boulevard conversion, speaking about it only long enough during presentations to point out where traffic signals will be added and explain why, in RIDOT’s estimation, Providence shouldn't expect such an approach to be successful, despite successful case studies from other cities, including Denver and San Francisco.

He argues that the regional nature of routes 6 and 10 mean reconstructing the highway as a boulevard would inconvenience too many drivers from outside the city. The remainder of his presentation focuses on why the capped-highway option is the superior alternative.

RIDOT echos the city’s message about balancing the needs of motorists and neighborhoods abutting the highway, but its application for grant funding to the U.S. Department of Transportation makes clear whose needs are the priority.

“Given the core objectives of strengthening local and regional highway/freight networks, the design concept addresses the neighborhood severance imposed by the original infrastructure to the best extent practicable," according to RIDOT's application.

While RIDOT digs in its heels defending the capped-highway alternative, which was designed and selected as the agency’s preferred alternative prior to engaging with the public, Providence’s planning and development department remains more open-minded. Nickerson’s presentation didn't endorse or reject any design option, focusing instead on process and desired outcomes regardless of which design is eventually built.

Nickerson noted that Olneyville Square was once a bustling, multi-modal “second-downtown," drawing residents from Johnston and North Providence. Circa 1940, Olneyville had a population density greater than New York City’s, but in the decades following the 6-10 Connector's construction, the population declined dramatically, she said. While the neighborhood remains dense, it doesn't have a high rate of car ownership.

“The population abutting this highway is not really benefiting from the presence of the highway, and is really bearing the costs of that highway going through (its) neighborhoods,” Nickerson said. “The neighborhoods along the 6-10 connector have much poorer health outcomes than the rest of the (city’s) neighborhoods, (with) childhood asthma rates double the national average."

She also cited lower home values and higher vacancy rates in Olneyville than other city neighborhood. She described the highway as a psychological and physical barrier that creates “vacant, dead pockets of our city."

While Nickerson noted the same traffic-volume and geographic challenges as Garino, her presentation included case studies from around the country and world of highway-to-boulevard conversions, capped highways, and one, in South Korea, where the highway was entirely removed and replaced with a city park. The case studies weren't presented as right or wrong, but as options in need of proper vetting.

Despite noting, “this is not as easy as some of the highway-to-boulevard projects that we’ve seen around the country,” it's clear Nickerson is thinking bigger than RIDOT’s capped-highway design.

“There are challenges and constraints, but we are all very smart and capable people and we will overcome them," she said.

According to Nickerson, “a transparent, inclusive, community-engagement process” is the city’s top priority regarding the design selection process. “We need to engage the neighborhoods that are most impacted by the project,” she said.

The city’s desired outcomes include: regaining developable land, to catalyze investment in currently underserved neighborhoods, create jobs, increase property values, and offer returns to the city and state via tax revenue; improving the ability of residents to walk, bike and take transit to their destinations, thereby making the city more competitive with its peers; reconnecting neighborhoods currently severed by the highway in a more comprehensive way than RIDOT has yet detailed; improving the health and quality of life for residents in neighborhoods abutting the highway; shrinking the profile of the roadway and minimizing the size and number of viaducts; and choosing a design that reduces upfront construction and long-term maintenance costs.

Nickerson said reducing congestion should be a priority. “If you are on 6-10, in the morning or afternoon rush hour, you're sitting in traffic. You’re not flowing through at 70 miles per hour,” she said. “How can we use this investment to reduce that congestion?”

She suggested that a “distributed network” rather than the highway could be the solution and should be vetted.

“We know where people are coming from and where they are going," Nickerson said. "Can we test out different models and see how much traffic can get dispersed because there is a better way to get to where you are (going if) there are more connections that you can make?”

One audience member from the city's West Side later explained to Garino that, while he uses the highway a few times a week to drive to neighboring towns, the reason he does so is because "we kind of have to to get from one side of the highway to the other.”

If the grid was restored, he said, it would serve his needs better, even for trips he is currently making on the highway. “My gut feeling is that it’s much less of a throughway than the (numbers) suggest."

Nickerson noted that the Champs Elysees in Paris, which carries 84,000 cars daily, is an example of how to move high-volume traffic in an urban center. “It moves a lot of cars, but is a pretty lovely place to be,” she said.

She also cited the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. “It’s a high-capacity roadway, but feels urban and like an amenity to the city.”

Nickerson announced that the city issued a request for proposal and hired Utile, a design and planning firm from Boston, to work with the city during the next few months to develop three design alternatives for the 6-10 Connector project. Community workshops will drive the process beginning with the first on July 19 at 6:00 p.m. at ASA Messer Elementary School, 1655 Westminster Street.

From the three designs generated, the city will select its preferred alternative and submit it to RIDOT by mid-September to be considered as part of the alternatives analysis, according to Nickerson.

The 6-10 Connector project will “set up what this part of our city will be for many generations to come,” she said. "How are we going to build the best version of the project we can?”