By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — In mid-April the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) submitted a FASTLANE grant application requesting $175 million in U.S. Department of Transportation funding for the reconstruction of the deteriorating 6-10 Connector. The application detailed RIDOT’s preferred design, a capped highway, similar to Boston’s Big Dig.
The FASTLANE grant program draws from federal funds reserved for critical freight and highway projects with regional or national significance. RIDOT aligned its April 14 application with the purposes of the grant program by focusing on the 6-10 Connector’s role as a highway link between interstates 95, 195 and 295, and freight terminals such as ProvPort, T. F. Green Airport and the regional rail network.
The capped-highway idea “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 told ecoRI News.
At public meetings in early April, RIDOT described its capped-highway design as a “hybrid” between a basic reconstruction of the connector’s existing exit and entrance ramps and a design proposed by the advocacy group Moving Together PVD that recommended replacing the highway with a multi-modal boulevard. According to Peter Garino, RIDOT deputy director, the capped highway offers “the best of both worlds,” allowing the existing highway to pass beneath the cap in tunnels, while adding the local benefits of the boulevard design atop the cap.
The local benefits of the capped-highway design noted in RIDOT’s FASTLANE grant application include the reintegration of the West End, Silver Lake and Olneyville neighborhoods, which were divided by the highway’s construction in the 1950s, added developable land that is currently part of the connector’s footprint, and opportunities to add multi-modal transportation such as pedestrian, bike and transit facilities in a location where car ownership rates are low — just 50 percent in Olneyville, for example.
Applications that prioritize mobility and accessibility in disadvantaged neighborhoods will be prioritized, according to the grant’s notice of funding opportunity.
Advocates of a the boulevard design note that the capped highway, while able to achieve some benefits of a boulevard, still requires exit, entrance, and interchange ramps on otherwise developable land and induces high levels of downtown parking. The capped highway doesn't resolve bottleneck issues at exit, entrance, and interchange ramps, or the negative health and environmental impacts caused by the highway, according to advocates.
RIDOT claims a combination of ramp metering and added street capacity on local roads above the cap will help with congestion, but admits the capped highway will not solve the bottleneck issues associated with the connector's merge with I-95.
Additionally, the capped highway would cost more to build and maintain than a boulevard; Garino has described the maintenance costs of a boulevard as similar to those of a city street.
At recent public meetings, RIDOT inferred that the connector’s level of service — the number of daily car trips, currently about 97,000 between Olneyville and downtown Providence — is too high to be accommodated by a boulevard, which would include traffic signals and new intersections. Boulevard advocates claim level of service is a poor indicator of the feasibility of highway-removal projects based on case studies, and that by reconnecting the city's grid of streets a boulevard would reduce congestion at current bottlenecks.
Both sides agree that some regional commuters currently using the connector to pass through Providence would find alternative routes to their destinations if a boulevard is built — a fact that RIDOT and many suburbanites see as an inconvenience, but boulevard advocates see as a natural redistribution of drivers that should never have been routed through downtown Providence to reach their non-city destinations in the first place.
Framing the conversation
While the FASTLANE grant application detailed the capped-highway design, changes are permitted following a federal grant award, and a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process will require alternative designs to be vetted, including the boulevard concept, according to St. Martin.
In the federal application, RIDOT acknowledges its responsibility to hold more public and stakeholder meetings, and to consider alternative designs. That said, the objectives and language included in the application frame the conversation in a way that make the boulevard design seem like a square peg being forced into a round hole.
RIDOT's application includes three objectives: continue to serve the needs of regional highway and surface freight transportation networks, in part by “separation of local and through traffic;" incorporate modern, flexible dedicated transit facilities; and address urban livability needs of communities impacted by the highway, in part by “replacing the conventional interchange with a system of lower (throughway/tunnel) and upper-level (local) elements.”
Elsewhere, the application notes that the impacted communities are disproportionately non-white, poor and carless.
Later in the application, RIDOT makes clear which objective is 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."
At different points in the application, routes 6 and 10 and their connector are described as a “vital link in the state's highway network,” a “critical east-west regional link for automobile and truck traffic between I-295, 95 and 195,” “essential linkages in state and regional freight movement" and “vital arteries within the core of Providence’s highway system.”
“The new interchange will consist of lower-level express travel lanes for passenger vehicles and freight, over which (city streets) will be constructed on a cap,” according to the application.
Concerning the consideration of alternatives, the application states, “The (NEPA) process will involve closer examination of alternatives within the general parameters of the concept presented herein.”
By emphasizing the highway and freight role served by the 6-10 Connector to align the reconstruction project with the FASTLANE grant program’s purposes, RIDOT has left little room for serious discussion of the highway-removal project that boulevard advocates support. It also has reframed the conversation from, “What is best for Rhode Islanders?” to “What is best for freight traveling in Rhode Island?”
The 6-10 Connector and the 6-10 Corridor, which travels between the connector in Olneyville and downtown Providence where the boulevard has been proposed, are relatively lightly trafficked by trailer and tandem trucks, carrying fewer than Route 146, or I-95, 195 or 295, according to RIDOT's Truck Traffic Count Summary Report from October 2015. Only 693 trucks travel the 6-10 Corridor daily, compared to more than 4,500 trucks traveling on any given stretch of I-95 or I-195 studied. Considering 97,000 trips are made daily though the corridor, trailer and tandem truck traffic makes up less than 1 percent. Routes 6 and 10 to the west and south of the connector, respectively, weren't even included in the study.
James Kennedy, a founding member of the boulevard advocacy group Moving Together PVD and author of the blog Transport Providence, recently told ecoRI News that RIDOT shouldn't encourage through-truck traffic, which he said the current grant application does. Trucks cause more damage to the state's roads than they pay for, even with new RhodeWorks tolling revenue, he said.
“We may not be getting as much value as we're losing in damage, from through-truck traffic,” Kennedy said.
He said the $175 million of requested FASTLANE funding would help cover a small portion — 29 percent — of the upfront cost of RIDOT’s capped-highway project, but would result in more through-truck traffic on routes 6 and 10 and the connector and leave the state on the hook for the associated long-term maintenance costs.
Receiving a FASTLANE grant “is like finding out you have some money available to you for a down payment on a house, but only if you buy the largest house available," he said. "You know in the back of your mind that you don't have the money to continue making payments, so why go for that deal?"
Local truck deliveries must be accommodated, Kennedy said, but such deliveries can be accommodated by a boulevard and the city’s grid.
“I suggest we focus on figuring out what we actually want, and building that, rather than focusing on what grants exist to pay the upfront costs of things we might not want,” he said.