By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
There was good and bad news for advocates of reconstructing the 6-10 Connector as a multimodal boulevard during the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s recent round of public meetings.
The good news for boulevard supporters was that pressure from a March 23 pro-boulevard forum organized by the city of Providence and a meeting between the Environment Council of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) led to the agency presenting a boulevard option alongside two others — a basic highway rebuild and a capped highway — at its recent public meetings. RIDOT didn't present a boulevard option at last month's Providence forum.
Supporters say converting the 6-10 Connector to a boulevard would reintegrate neighborhoods divided by the highway, reduce negative health impacts on neighboring communities, unlock up to 80 acres of developable land, and serve all modes of transportation including pedestrians, bicycles, buses and cars. The traffic volume on the boulevard would be less than current highway levels, because many regional commuters would use alternative routes such as I-295 to reach their destinations, and many local drivers would use the gird of local roads that is currently blocked by the highway, according to advocates.
The bad news for boulevard supporters was that during the recent hearings RIDOT officials consistently compared the boulevard disfavorably to the agency’s preferred option: a capped-highway similar to Boston’s Big Dig.
Red lights, not traffic signals, were invoked regularly by RIDOT director Peter Alviti and deputy director Peter Garino when referencing the boulevard option. The implication was that traffic can't move efficiently on roads with traffic signals. To the contrary, other cities time traffic signals on boulevards to enable drivers traveling the speed limit to rarely confront red lights — a traffic-engineering strategy known as a green wave.
When asked if a green wave could be used in the design of a 6-10 boulevard at a recent Cranston public hearing, Garino said timed traffic lights in New York City move traffic at about 25 mph. ecoRI News asked whether that speed is comparable to the average speed on the 6-10 Connector at peak hours when congestion is accounted for; Garino didn't know the answer.
“(The capped highway) would solve the traffic issues that would be created by red lights at a surface intersection, and allows the existing volume of traffic to continue to operate,” Alviti said at a recent meeting in the Providence neighborhood of Olneyville.
While RIDOT officials were unenthusiastic about designing solutions to the boulevard’s traffic signals, the daily traffic jams caused by “the existing volume of traffic” where 6-10 merges with I-95 were dismissed as solvable. Alviti said the 6-10 Connector project will not fix the problems at the I-95 interchange, but RIDOT will solve the problem by modifying the northbound viaduct in tandem with 6-10 Connector construction.
RIDOT officials routinely downplayed instances where the boulevard option compared favorably to the capped-highway idea. At the meeting in Olneyville, it wasn't until ecoRI News asked about the relative costs of the options — more than an hour into the meeting — that RIDOT revealed the boulevard option would cost taxpayers less. The difference remains undetermined, as RIDOT hasn't calculated the cost of the boulevard option.
Conversely, at the Cranston meeting, when a cost comparison favored RIDOT’s preferred option, Garino cited it immediately. A Cranston resident said she didn’t want a boulevard, she just wanted the highways and bridges repaired. Garino noted that the cost difference between her proposal and the capped highway was only 5 percent, making the choice to include the amenities associated with the capped highway easy.
At the Olneyville meeting, Alviti asked audience members to consider relative value not relative cost when assessing the different alternatives.
Garino said the boulevard would be the least expensive plan, but the option with the most benefits, for drivers, transit users, cyclists and pedestrians, would be the capped highway.
“(A capped highway) would provide more open space and developable land than the boulevard approach," Garino said. "We don’t know exactly how much trip time for bus rapid transit would be impacted by the boulevard, but we know (it) would be slower. We don’t know exactly how much worse it would be for pedestrians, but we know it would be more difficult for pedestrians to cross. We don’t know exactly the impact on bicyclists, but we know it would be worse. We don’t know exactly what the delays would be (for drivers), but we know there will be delays."
The drawbacks of the capped-highway option, including maintaining traffic volumes that objectively create traffic jams at interchanges, using otherwise developable land for on and off ramps, and the negative health impacts on neighboring communities weren't similarly listed by Garino.
What you get with a capped highway, Garino said, is “the best of both worlds.”
Ian Lockwood, one of the expert presenters at the Providence forum in March, warned RIDOT officials not to be tempted by exactly that dream. “The cap gives the illusion that you can have it both ways, that you can have great stuff happening on top, then have the highway happening underneath,” he said. “However, (the capped highway) still rewards the long trip, it still creates the parking issues, it still has ramps, it still has the baggage (of a traditional highway).”
He specifically recommended against a capped-highway approach.
Beyond the sales pitch
Though RIDOT’s recent public hearings proceeded like a sales pitch for the capped-highway option, state officials also offered some substantive information.
All three options — the basic rebuild, the capped highway and the boulevard — include access to Route 6 west for people traveling on Route 10 north. Currently, making this connection requires drivers to exit Route 10 north on Westminster Street or Broadway, then navigate local roads to the nearest entrance ramp for Route 6 west, resulting in congestion in and around Olneyville Square. Addressing this issue is a high priority for residents and business owners of Olneyville and 6-10 users.
All three alternatives include bus rapid transit with limited stops from Johnston to the Providence train station bus hub. Additional buses traveling north on Route 10 could be added in the future.
All three options will require air-quality assessments that consider impacts to communities neighboring the 6-10 Connector.
The project’s focus is from the Hartford Avenue bridge to the Broadway bridge. Whichever design is selected for this segment will be continued toward Providence over time at an undetermined cost.
In response to an Olneyville business owner who was financially impacted by a prior 6-10 Connector project, but received no financial compensation from the government, Alviti said the current project will include public outreach to and mitigation for businesses in the area impacted by construction.
“We will provide whatever mitigation makes you whole economically for the duration of the project,” Alviti said.
April 14 was the deadline for submitting an application for a FASTLANE grant offered by the Federal Highway Administration. RIDOT submitted an application requesting an additional $150 million for the 6-10 Connector project. Without that grant, RIDOT expects to have $800 million in state and federal funds available for the project.
The FASTLANE application features only the capped-highway option. The capped highway “represents the many viewpoints expressed at the recent public workshops. It affords the best opportunity to garner federal dollars and is the best design to give us the most amount of latitude in selecting the final design,” RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin wrote in an e-mail to ecoRI News.
If RIDOT is awarded the funding, consideration of design alternatives, including the boulevard option, will be required by federal law.
Vastly different viewpoints were voiced by the public at RIDOT's meetings near Olneyville in Providence on April 12 and in Cranston on April 13 despite their relative proximity. The Providence meeting was attended by more than 100 people — some favored the hybrid, while many favored the boulevard.
About 50 people attended the Cranston meeting, most of whom support options that would preserve the connector as a highway for suburban commuters.
While many at the meeting in Providence were alarmed by RIDOT’s dismissive language regarding the boulevard, many Cranston residents were frustrated that none of the options increased the number of lanes dedicated to cars on the highway. Garino said RIDOT isn't considering such an expansion, which would further inflame the bottleneck at I-95.
James Kennedy, author of the blog Transport Providence and one of three founding members of Moving Together PVD, a group advocating for the boulevard option, commented at each meeting. In Providence, he said the highway had estranged once-integrated neighborhoods such as Olneyville and Silverlake. The boulevard would reunite them by reconnecting the grid of city streets interrupted by the highway, Kennedy said.
In Cranston, Kennedy focused on the concerns of suburban commuters. He said the highway creates a wall for drivers that funnels cars to pinch points, where local traffic can cross under the highway and where commuters can access on and off ramps. This design results in the bottlenecks many meeting attendees complained about, he said.
Kennedy said the boulevard would create more crossings of routes 6 and 10 and disperse traffic from current bottlenecks. “Boulevards don’t reduce capacity, they open up more capacity by allowing people to use the grid more effectively,” he said.
At both meetings Kennedy noted that the boulevard was the cheapest option. Like the other options, the boulevard would require bridges in order to cross the railroad tracks to the west of the 6-10 Connector, he said, but the bridges would be up to 80 percent shorter than those that currently span the highway. The shorter bridges would be significantly cheaper, allowing more crossings for less cost.
At the Providence meeting, Robert Cote, a Warwick resident, said RIDOT’s past failures in road construction and maintenance — specifically those associated with the Apponaug Circulator Project in Warwick — make him doubt the agency's ability to achieve the more ambitious 6-10 Connector project. Alviti said the Apponaug Circulator Project is on time and on budget, and that the contractor responsible for Cote’s street-sweeping complaint has been “brought to task.”
Barry Schiller, a North Providence resident and former Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) board member, said increasing the quality and frequency of existing buses would be a significantly cheaper and more meaningful investment than including bus rapid transit on the 6-10 Connector.
A woman who chose not to disclose her name said offering better pedestrian and bike facilities would improve the environment and public health. She noted that the Resilient Rhode Island Act requires the state to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The most significant contributor to carbon emissions in Rhode Island is the transportation sector.
David Stuebe, who lives a block from the 6-10 Connector in the West End of Providence, requested a commitment to a transparent process that addresses health concerns such as asthma rates, climate change, impacts on businesses and the myriad other concerns shared by members of the public.
Alviti said he is committed to just such an approach, and noted the federal permitting process requires, among other items, air-quality assessments, economic and social impact studies, and consideration of public comment before the final design is formulated.
“This is just the beginning of the process. RIDOT will be having a public hearing process (this summer),” St. Martin wrote in his e-mail to ecoRI News. While the submitted FASTLANE grant application included the capped-highway alternative, changes are permitted following a federal grant award, he noted.
In Cranston, the environmental, social and health impacts of the 6-10 Connector weren't the focus. “Boulevards are nice within a neighborhood, but I’m a representative from Cranston. Our people want to get on Route 10 and Route 6 and they want to get into downtown Providence,” said Charlene Lima, a state representative from Cranston. “We want to get to work. We don’t want to be held up ten minutes. We don’t want to stop at stop lights. We don’t want to worry about people on bicycles. That’s what the 6-10 Connector is for.”
Garino turned to the capped-highway alternative in response, noting that expressway and boulevard amenities would be able to exist concurrently. “You still have the expressway, but you give the host community some of the amenities they are looking for, and get some folks to use transit so that we can bend that curve of automobile growth," he said.
Cost was another primary topic at the Cranston meeting. Molly Henry, a Providence resident, asked about the long-term maintenance costs of each option. Garino said the capped-highway option would be cheaper to maintain than rebuilding the highway in its current form. He described the maintenance costs of the boulevard as being similar to those of a city street.
Jonathan Keith, running for senate in Cranston’s district 27, suggested that RIDOT should allocate less funding to the 6-10 Connector so that additional projects elsewhere in the state can be addressed.
Garino responded that the RhodeWorks plan budgeted for addressing both the 6-10 Connector and most of the other bridges in the state.