Both a travel plaza and truck stop have been proposed for sites that sit atop a main drinking-water source
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
HOPKINTON, R.I. — Public and private development projects associated with the transportation industry threaten the local drinking-water supply and some 50 acres of forestland, according to opponents of both ideas.
“The state wants to build a transit hub right square on an aquifer, and no one looks into it,” Mimi Karlsson, a Hopkinton resident and vocal opponent, told ecoRI News in late November. “We have aquifer protection overlays and comprehensive plans that need to be reviewed every five years on the books now for two and a half decades. Did DOT even look at these plans?”
In October 2015 Rhode Island was awarded a $9 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The money is earmarked for a travel plaza/welcome center, most likely at Exit 1 off Interstate 95. The grant would cover about 75 percent of the $12 million project, should state and local officials move forward on the proposal.
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has proposed building the new facility on a 20-acre wooded site near the Connecticut border. Plans call for a 6,000-square-foot welcome center, fast-food chains, bicycling amenities, a park-and-ride facility for up to 200 vehicles that would serve the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and intercity bus operators, and up to 10 fueling stations, including electric-vehicle charging.
The proposed site sits atop the Pawcatuck Basin Aquifer System, the sole source of drinking water for many residents of southern Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. There are no viable alternative sources of sufficient supply, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and, if contamination were to occur, it would pose a significant public-health hazard and a serious financial burden to area residents.
In a press announcement issued last year by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to tout the proposed travel plaza, no mention is made of the aquifer. None of the elected officials quoted in the press release mentions the clear-cutting of woods or the environmental impact of increased forest fragmentation. The issue of increased stormwater is ignored.
Instead, the Ocean State’s congressional delegation and governor focused on the economic opportunities the travel plaza will provide.
“This is an opportunity to build a first-class travel plaza that offers visitors and local residents new, convenient retail, food, fuel and travel options,” Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, is quoted. “We want to ensure it’s a state-of-the-art facility with modern amenities that helps travelers stay connected while also showcasing all the state has to offer.”
Richmond Town Council members have asked RIDOT to build the rest stop in their town, at Exit 3, but Hopkinton remains the top choice. In the 1970s, a Mobil gas station in Richmond leaked more than 2,529 gallons of gasoline and contaminated private wells in the Canob Park neighborhood.
“We are working hard to build a statewide brand that showcases Rhode Island to the rest of the country as a great place to live, grow a business, and visit as a tourist or business traveler,” Gov. Gina Raimondo is quoted in the Reed press release. “This travel plaza will be located at the gateway to our state, and will serve as an important feature in our tourism efforts.”
Not far from this proposed travel plaza, Love’s Travel Stop & Country Stores has applied for special-use permits and an aquifer protection permit to build a truck stop on 30 acres of privately owned forestland. The proposed facility would include a gas station, convenience store, restaurant, gift shop and 145 parking spots. The site sits atop a secondary aquifer.
The Oklahoma City-based chain of travel stops and convenience stores operates some 400 locations in 40 states. Among those reportedly opposed to the truck stop are the Hopkinton Historical Association — the property is the former site of a town farm/asylum, from 1863-1945, and reportedly includes nearly 80 graves — and the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.
Both proposed rest areas would compete with similar facilities nearby. There’s a Pilot truck stop a few miles to the west, and a TA truck stop about 10 miles north. Rhode Island also recently reopened a welcome center on the northbound side of I-95 between exits 2 and 3. In 2011, the state closed the rest area because of “a lack of funds and changes in tourism trends nationwide.”
Reed’s press release called the facility “outdated” and unable to “offer the full slate of amenities that the new travel plaza may provide.”
Forty percent of Rhode Island’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from the transportation sector, according to a climate-change report recently produced for the state’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council.
Hopkinton resident John Pennypacker created Keep Hopkinton Country out of concern about the proposed rest areas. He recently told ecoRI News that both projects are bad development ideas, and that the risks associated with spilling fuel and/or chemicals above a drinking-water supply have largely been ignored.
“They want to create two giant gas stations on top of an aquifer,” he said. “It’s like keeping gas cans on top of your refrigerator. Who would do that?”
Pennypacker said no one he has spoken with is in favor of either project. In November, Hopkinton voters rejected nonbinding Question 9 — “Do the electors of the Town of Hopkinton support or oppose the RI Department of Transportation’s plan to construct a ‘Transit Hub’ or ‘Welcome Center’ within the Town of Hopkinton, in the vicinity of Exit 1 on Interstate Route 95?” — by a two-thirds margin.
Pennypacker also noted that information about the proposals is hard to find and, with all the meetings, special and otherwise, the progress of each is difficult to follow.
“The state investing in a gasoline economy in this day and age makes little sense,” he said. “Rest areas and travel plazas don’t lead us to a more prosperous economy. It feels like our statewide economic development plan is picking at scraps and not leading the discussion. Developers make a pitch and we react. It betrays any sense of strategy of what the state wants to do.”