By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — At a city-organized forum in March, Peter Alviti, director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), announced his agency would consider a “hybrid” approach to reconstructing the increasingly dilapidated 6-10 Connector. Alviti admitted he was not on board with the highway-to-boulevard idea proposed by the advocates he spoke alongside that night, but said his agency recognized the city's concerns about the negative impacts the highway has on the neighborhoods that surround it and that a more context-sensitive design could alleviate some of those problems.
The hybrid approach was RIDOT’s compromise between a rebuild of the highway and replacing it with a multimodal boulevard, an idea favored by many in Providence but few in the city’s bordering suburbs. The hybrid would maintain the highway in tunnels under an earthen cap, atop which the city could guide development in a way that connects neighborhoods and improves the quality of life for local residents.
At that March public forum, Alviti said RIDOT was looking to make it safe for commuters, but also take the city’s priorities into consideration.
"I happen to be of the philosophy that the two are not mutually exclusive," he said. "That the two can coincide in a way that mend(s) neighborhoods in an urban area, (offers) recreation, additional economic development, pedestrian and bike transport, and increases the effectiveness of our transit system, while still maintaining a level of service for vehicles that use this corridor for their livelihoods and the transportation of goods and services.
"This is a singular opportunity, something that comes along once in a lifetime. (We can take) a vital piece of land and redesign it into something that (suits the needs of) all stakeholders — city, state and neighborhoods. That’s our commitment. We’ll be working with the city so that we can expand the potential solutions to the design and reconstruction of this project (so it) fulfills the dreams and the economic and social potential that this kind of corridor affords the city. It’s very important to us, it’s very important to the governor, and it’s very important to the mayor. We will make sure that we get a finished product that everyone here, and everyone in the state can be proud of."
That same night, Alviti also explained how Rhode Island came to rank last nationally in the category of bridge condition, with one in five state bridges considered structurally deficient.
“Historically, the way we have reacted is to rebuild what was there by taking the worst conditioned roadways and bridges and rebuilding them over and over and over again,” he said. “(This) led to us having one of the worst transit systems and bridge and roadway systems in the country."
RIDOT, he said, is trying to break that cycle and, instead, think a decade down the road when planning the state’s transportation system. He described the rebuild of the 6-10 Connector as “really, no plan.”
At RIDOT public meetings, held in four locations in April, the agency once again made clear that it understood the stakes. At a meeting in the Silver Lake neighborhood, adjacent to the 6-10 Connector, Alviti once again recoiled from the boulevard alternative, claiming that all of the intersections would pile up traffic. He based that claim on the agency's skin-deep assessment of the plan, but said, “We are trying to be mindful of all the stakeholders.”
“We want to rebuild in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the city, while still meeting the needs of many people who use this as a regional transportation facility,” he said, noting RIDOT is creating public feedback opportunities to discuss the alternatives and listening to the public.
"It will be impossible for us to make everyone happy, but we are here to serve you in a way that creates a solution that meets as many of the needs, that delivers as many of the choices for different modes of transportation to as many of you as it can, and end up with a final product that makes our neighborhoods and communities more livable, and do all of this at the least cost and in the most efficient manner. That's our goal,” he said. “I think you’ll all agree with me that it’s very important that we get this right."
At that same meeting, David Stuebe, who lives a block from the 6-10 Connector in the city's West End, requested a commitment to a transparent process that would address public-health concerns, such as asthma rates, climate change, impacts on businesses, and the myriad other concerns shared by members of the public at the meeting.
Alviti said he was committed to just such an approach, and noted that 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," agency spokesman Charles St. Martin wrote in an e-mail to ecoRI News shortly after that spring meeting.
All of that was the backdrop to a Sept. 7 press conference called by Gov. Gina Raimondo, where she announced that the Huntington Viaduct, one of the 6-10 Connector’s main pieces of infrastructure, would be immediately rebuilt without incorporating the advice of the community.
The viaduct is a crucial segment of the project and sets the stage for the design of the rest of the corridor.
“We are out of time,” Raimondo said, citing the fact that seven of nine bridges within the scope of the project are structurally deficient and that the Huntington Viaduct specifically was deteriorating more quickly than previously realized.
The governor framed the decision as a public-safety crisis, mentioning the word “safe” or “safety” 10 times in her 5-minute statement.
“My top priority is to keep the people of Rhode Island safe," she said. "We have a public-safety issue in Rhode Island, and that’s why we need to take immediate action on the 6-10 interchange. Delay is no longer an option.”
The 6-10 Connector project has been languishing at RIDOT for three decades. Until the recent passage of the RhodeWorks program, the reason for the delay was a lack of funding to rebuild the infrastructure. Instead, in order to “keep the people of Rhode Island safe,” these degrading bridges have been continuously buttressed with metal and wood braces.
Now that funding is available, the delay the governor is so set on overcoming seems more like the public-engagement and environmental-review process.
Alviti has completely reversed his previous commitments to incorporate the city's priorities into the project. Instead, according to reporting by Bob Plain of RI Future, Alviti said all the discussions about reconnecting neighborhoods, multimodal streets and bettering disadvantaged communities, which he himself took part in, were hypothetical theorizing and disconnected from reality.
“Hypothetical plans or other scenarios could be explored in the world of theory, but in the world of reality we are facing we now need to address this structurally deficient problem,” he said.
Alviti, in fact, wrote the letter that spurred the governor to action.
“I write with an urgent recommendation to immediately pursue an in-kind replacement of the structurally deficient bridges of the 6-10 Interchange using the $400 million in funding made available under the RhodeWorks legislation,” he wrote in his Sept. 2 letter. “Over the past several weeks, RIDOT has conducted a safety evaluation of the bridges in the 6-10 interchange. The results indicate that the deterioration of the bridges is accelerating and therefore immediate action is needed.”
The letter was written several weeks after RIDOT’s grant application for its hybrid design was rejected by the federal government. The state's application regularly referenced the importance of aiding the disadvantaged communities surrounding the connector via a better designed roadway, but that language was nonexistent in Alviti's Sept. 2 letter to the governor.
Had the $175 million federal grant been approved, Alviti’s proposed hybrid project would have had to undergo a two- to three-year design and review process, during which, presumably, the agency would have shored up the bridges to keep them "safe" and operational until construction began. Now, after word that the federal government will not fund the agency’s compromise design, and another round of demands by city residents for the less-expensive boulevard design, RIDOT has suddenly elevated the safety issue, which the state was already mostly aware of, to the point of crisis.
The project has been kicked down the road for 30 years, but now that federal funding isn't available, the infrastructure is suddenly more hazardous than it was two months ago.
“We are going to move (on this) without further delay, without further discussion, it’s a public-safety mandate, let’s get to work,” Raimondo said during her recent press conference. “I wish we had time, I wish these bridges were in better shape, and administrations before me had taken action so we were not left where we are. But we don’t have the luxury of time.”
Another advantage of the in-kind rebuild, from the state’s point of view anyway, is that it allows Rhode Island to avoid a lengthy environmental-review process, which would have considered environmental and public-health concerns in abutting neighborhoods.
Alviti, in his letter to Raimondo requesting immediate action on the 6-10 Connector, highlighted the fact that Carlos Machadeo, the division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, previously expressed to him that an in-kind replacement of the infrastructure would qualify as a “Categorical Exclusion” under federal environmental rules and regulations, “allowing us to expedite the reconstruction of the bridges."
The review process now being avoided is the same one Alviti publicly promised in Silver Lake back in April.
In a recent e-mail to ecoRI News, RIDOT’s St. Martin said the agency isn't dodging the environmental-review process. An environmental impact statement for the project has already been completed, he noted. This is true, but that document is now more than 10 years old.
Mayor Jorge Elorza and the city are pushing back, lightly. The mayor agreed to be at the governor’s press conference, and was commended twice by Raimondo for his support of her decision.
“I want to thank all of the mayors who have come together today in support of this. Mayor Elorza ... it's been a pleasure to work with you," the governor said at the start of her remarks.
It's unclear how supportive the mayor actually is. In his own remarks at the Sept. 7 press conference, he noted the importance of safe infrastructure, but said public safety doesn’t need to come at the expense of the city’s needs.
“While we know the bridge must be addressed in short order, we remain enthusiastic about the opportunity to collaborate with the state on the options to enhance and improve the 6-10 corridor as a whole,” Elorza said. “RIDOT, the city, and the community have all articulated a larger goal for this project including enhanced mobility options, improving the quality of place and quality of life in and around the corridor, and opening up new areas of economic development and jobs.
“We can invest these dollars in a way that ensures the safety of this roadway and also enhances the livability of this entire corridor. It’s our responsibility to advocate for the smartest investment of these dollars."
The mayor has agreed to accelerate the city’s current process of designing an alternative for the 6-10 Connector, for RIDOT consideration. According to the Providence Journal, this will basically eliminate any further public engagement opportunities.
“There will not be any more public forums, but the city still intends to come up with its alternative design within 60 days," Emily Crowley, the city's media relations representative, told the Providence Journal.
Comments can be sent to the city at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an e-mail sent by the city’s planning department the day after the governor’s announcement, Bonnie Nickerson said the city remains committed to the project.
“We share RIDOT's concern for public safety and for the condition of our infrastructure, however, we believe that our community should not have to choose between public safety and enhancing the quality of life along the 6-10 corridor," the director of planning wrote. "Over the next several weeks, we will continue to meet with RIDOT and our design consultants to integrate the feedback that we heard from you into the next phase of their work, and find a path forward that is responsible, prudent, and contributes to the strength and vitality of our neighborhoods."
The governor, RIDOT and the city will apparently continue to try to incorporate some community-friendly ideas into the project, but the governor has made it clear that only add-ons to the highway will be considered, such as a future Bus Rapid Transit lane, not the more visionary plans the city has in mind.
Additionally, Raimondo has set a restrictive time limit on the design process. “I will consider any modifications to the broader plan for the other six structurally deficient bridges, but my guidepost as we consider any of these other alternatives is it has to be wrapped up by the end of the year,” she said.
Raimondo said the $400 million available from RhodeWorks is enough to rebuild the bridges within the project's scope, despite RIDOT saying, at the Olneyville meeting in April, that the project would cost within 5 percent of $525 million.
According to St. Martin, the project will now be constrained to $400 million, and the scope of the work will be more limited than envisioned originally. "There will be no widening of the highway or additional capacity, or other changes in the geometry of the bridges and their curves," he said.
The $400 million rebuild of the outdated infrastructure will commit the city to 75 to 100 years — RIDOT's figure — of neighborhood division and a transportation network that supports only travel by car. The price of a pure boulevard was never developed by RIDOT despite its acknowledgement that it would be the least expensive alternative.