R.I. Transportation Bridging Concepts with Reality

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — There is a lot of ground to cover between current practices and solutions for greening Rhode Island's transportation sector.

At an Oct. 28 conference, hosted by the University of Rhode Island's transportation engineering program, an array of speakers offered solutions for making the state's highways and byways more durable and healthier for the environment.

Solar-powered asphalt, roundabouts and gas-saving tires highlighted many concepts put forth by dozens of presenters, including students.

Harnessing energy from heat-absorbing roadways received significant attention. Exchange pipes embedded under roads to heat and cool buildings, or photovoltaic cells on unused pavement are all moving beyond the conceptual stage to actual use.

"This is something that can provide energy for us," said Imad L. Al-Qadi, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois.

URI graduate student Varun Kasaraneni proposed adding a thin layer of special organic material to asphalt, to capture contaminants such as motor oil, toxic auto exhaust and pavement coatings that might otherwise runoff into the water table.

To put these high-tech solutions into practice, former director of the state Department of Environmental Management and current URI professor Michael Sullivan suggested that the state's major road construction companies embrace the green movement.

New England is part of the only regional greenhouse gas initiative and as such should address climate change in practical terms, such as retrofitting polluting vehicles and maintaining more green space along highways, accoridng to Sullivan. The agricultural specialist said leave the number crunching over carbon dioxide levels to climate scientists.

"Let engineers be engineers, but higher some plant people," Sullivan said, referring to the need for landscape designers to address pollutants in road planning.

Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) CEO Charles Odimgbe unveiled a vision for public transportation that included rapid bus lines, new downtown transit hubs, streetcars and a revamped Kennedy Plaza. Seeking new revenue streams to pay for the upgrades is essential, he said.

K. Wayne Lee, director of URI's transportation research center, said bringing together the students and the business community is the long-term solution to making energy-intensive roadways a resource instead of a polluter. "The working together is the way," he said.