By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — Removing the Plainfield Street on-ramp to Route 6 East, and indirectly Route 10 North and South, was touted as a victory for the Olneyville and Silver Lake neighborhoods, when the city’s Department of Planning and Development announced a compromise design for the 6-10 Connector with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) in December.
The on-ramp removal is one of a handful of design features the planning department believes favors neighborhoods over the highways that divide them.
In Olneyville, for instance, a city-low one in four residents own a car, yet highway infrastructure overwhelms the neighborhood. Removing the ramp would decrease traffic congestion on Plainfield Street, open 3-4 acres of developable land, and create an opportunity to restore a cross-highway connection between Olneyville and Silver Lake via Magnolia Street, according to the city.
This was the narrative going into a Feb. 7 public meeting at the Silver Lake Community Center, so it was surprising when a sizable contingent of the 200 or so people who attended demanded the Plainfield Street on-ramp be maintained.
Furthermore, after presentations from RIDOT and the city’s planning department — similar to those delivered when the compromise plan was announced — a stream of politicians representing the area told the assembled crowd that removing the ramp was a mistake.
City Council member John Igliozzi, representing Providence’s 7th Ward, which includes the western part of Plainfield Street and Hartford Avenue west of Route 6, including its on- and off-ramps, said closing the Plainfield Street ramp would result in more congestion at the Hartford Avenue on-ramp.
“Of course, if you remove the on ramp on Plainfield Street you’re going to reduce the traffic there, but on Hartford Avenue you’re going to triple it,” he said.
Igliozzi also noted that businesses on Plainfield Street would suffer if fewer people used it as an access point for Route 6 East, including a gas station adjacent to the on-ramp that recently invested in facility upgrades.
City Council member Sabina Matos, representing Ward 15, which includes the eastern part of Plainfield Street and Hartford Avenue east of Route 6, said, “I do like a lot of the elements (of the compromise plan), like connecting the bike (paths), but I do not agree with removing the ramp.”
She noted that when the city removed an off-ramp in the neighborhood previously, “the neighborhood was impacted greatly.”
Shannon Donahue, a Daniel Avenue resident in the Silver Lake neighborhood, said the Plainfield Street ramp is a convenient way for people to get out of the neighborhood.
Lisa Scorpio, who lives on Plainfield Street, said when an exit ramp into the neighborhood was previously closed it was a major inconvenience.
“I have to get off, go through Olneyville, which is a horror show, all the way up Hartford Avenue, (another) horror show. We already have too much traffic,” she said.
Council members people and many in the audience demanded a traffic study and study of business impacts be conducted. Igliozzi asked the planning department whether a traffic study had been conducted during a January meeting.
“The answer was, we don’t have one,” he said. “Nor did they get back to us and say they are going to do it.”
When ecoRI News followed up with staff from RIDOT and the planning department after the meeting, neither group said they had plans to conduct a traffic study. RIDOT suggested the city would have to take the lead on such a study, while the city said RIDOT was responsible. The city said it could change its decision on whether to conduct a traffic study based on public feedback, like it received at the recent meeting.
There was also tension around the bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure included in the compromise plan. While the on-ramp removal and bike and pedestrian infrastructure are unrelated design features of the project, various speakers and members of the public attacked the proposed bike amenities as a means to argue against removing the on-ramp.
“If your voices aren’t heard on this, this project will keep moving forward,” Igliossa said, addressing those in favor of the ramp. “The ramp will be removed, and it will have a negative impact on Hartford Avenue and Silver Lake, and although (the planning department) will get (its) bike path, two neighborhoods are going to suffer.”
When one speaker objected to the overall cost of the project — $400 million — a member of the audience shouted, “Tax the bikes.”
Bicycle advocates turned out for the meeting as well, and attempted to defend bike infrastructure against the illogical argument that it was to blame for Silver Lake losing its on-ramp. They noted low car ownership rates in the impacted neighborhoods, and said ridership in the city would increase if people felt safer on bicycles.
After the meeting, Martina Haggerty, associate director of special projects for the Providence planning department, told ecoRI News that she didn’t see a relationship between the fate of the Plainfield Street on-ramp and bike infrastructure.
Another concern was that too much development in the neighborhood wasn’t necessarily a good thing. One local resident accused the planning department of redeveloping the neighborhood so that rents would increase. “Rent will go high, high, high, and we have to go bye-bye,” he said.
The Feb. 7 meeting focused almost exclusively on the removal of the Plainfield Street on-ramp, but, during a question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting, a Tobey Street resident concerned about drivers speeding on his street asked if the Tobey Street bridge would continue to provide access to Route 10 South and Route 6 West.
Bonnie Nickerson, director of the city’s planning department, said the bridge would serve as an highway on-ramp, a local road connecting Tobey Street and Harris Avenue, and include bike and pedestrian amenities. She said the city requested the bridge be exclusively reserved for local traffic and pedestrians, but RIDOT insisted that the bridge include access to the highways.
Issues relating to the Tobey Street bridge and approach streets, the proposed connection of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway and Washington Secondary bike path, and the design and number of travel lanes on the Broadway and Westminster Street bridges are likely to be raised at the next public meeting, at the Asa Messer Elementary School on the West End, the neighborhood most likely to be impacted by those features.