By ALEX KROGH-GRABBE
People decide which kind of transportation to take based on what is convenient and inexpensive. Our preferences make a small contribution to the decision, but we’re mostly just pragmatic. Due to the massive public investments in highways and car infrastructure that our federal, state and local governments have made in the past 50 years, in many places today the only safe option is cars. I think you’ll agree that having more options would be better.
We built for cars, and now deferred maintenance is coming back to bite us. In many places, bicycle and pedestrian safety weren’t considered in the construction of roads or residential and commercial development. While public transit agencies are chronically underfunded, lawmakers desperately smash piggy banks to find money for highway repair.
But as those public works maintenance bills come due and the federal money that usually pays for them dries up, many state and local governments are realizing that it’s a much better use of their transportation budget to invest in options that are lower cost than rampant kowtowing to wider highways and more flyovers.
In Providence, an estimated $500 million of repairs are needed on a small highway spur called the 6-10 Connector. This highway occupies 73 acres of land on the city’s West Side, cutting off the vibrant neighborhood of Federal Hill from the Woonasquatucket River and the neighborhoods of Olneyville and Valley. The rich legacy of Providence’s industrial past is visible in the buildings of these neighborhoods, and but for the concrete wall of exhaust fumes isolating them, they could share the vibrancy present in Federal Hill.
At the same time as state and local governments are faced with the nine-figure price tag to keep this monument to auto-dependence functional, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) is rebranding its best-used bus lines as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT is a relatively new innovation in transit, based on the idea that with adequate investment, bus service can be as convenient and comfortable as subway or light rail.
Cities around the world — especially in Colombia and Brazil — have shown that strong BRT systems have increased mobility and accessibility for a relatively low price tag. As RIPTA adds to its line improvements, it would be good to see local and state government offer their support for a successful BRT system through components such as: dedicated lanes or right-of-ways; preference at traffic lights so that buses always get a green light; and bus stops more like subway stations featuring off-board fare collection, no step up to entry, real-time displays of wait time and big, well-designed maps.
Let’s get back to that ugly expensive highway that needs to be removed. Highway removal has a successful recent history across North America. The Embarcadero in San Francisco and the West Side Highway in New York are the two most-often cited examples. Other cities have seen the removal of urban highways leading to reduced traffic and economic development.
Counterintuitively, more highway lanes leads to more traffic. As Providence has seen with the land made available downtown through the moving of I-195, the opportunities for real-estate investment on former highway land are enormous.
I suggest the 6-10 Connector be removed. I suggest replacing it with a boulevard that includes separated walking and cycling paths and dedicated transit lanes. I suggest we contact Michael Lewis at RIDOT and the gubernatorial candidates to ask for the conversion of this space to a safer urban corridor.
It’s time Rhode Island made the mature decision on transportation infrastructure and focused on more cost-efficient mobility.
Providence resident Alex Krogh-Grabbe has a master’s degree from Tufts University in urban and environmental policy and planning and served as the founding executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District before moving to Rhode Island.