Editor’s note: On Feb. 22 the Rhode Island Department of Transportation withdrew its major amendment that requested nearly $28 million be redirected from alternative transportation projects to pay for street paving and bridge repair work. The state agency noted that an unexpected influx of nearly $70 million in federal money allocated to Rhode Island though the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2019. The Transportation Advisory Committee public hearings on the RIDOT amendment scheduled for Feb. 25 and 28 have been canceled.
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Drew Pflaumer’s commute to work, from Broadway to One Capitol Hill, typically on his own two feet, was, for a planner, depressing. The city’s car-centric design didn’t make for a pleasant walk and once he got to work he knew any attempts to make Rhode Island more bicycle and pedestrian friendly would face tremendous resistance.
After 16 months as a principal planner for the Division of Statewide Planning, the 29-year-old Indiana native left in mid-January for another challenge.
Pflaumer left the state’s employ before the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) requested money designated for alternative transportation projects be used to make up for shortfalls in pavement and bridge funding. He recently told ecoRI News he’s not surprised the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists are being overlooked, the will of voters disregarded, and guidelines and laws ignored, such as the State Guide Plan and Rhode Island’s complete streets statute.
“The state is resistant to progress,” said Pflaumer, who has also worked as a municipal planner and as a transit planner. “There’s no critical mass of people who care.” He was referring to those who hold power.
Late last month RIDOT requested a major amendment to the 10-year state Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) that included a substantial funding cut, about 33 percent, to bicycle and pedestrian projects in the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). The Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) will hold two public hearings this month to accept comments on the 200-plus-page amendment. The current state transportation improvement program also includes a number of administrative adjustments and one minor amendment.
The proposed amendment delays, reduces, and eliminates nearly $28 million in funding to some three dozen alternative transportation projects statewide.
RIDOT’s request proposes to “significantly redistribute funding to projects to cover increased construction costs, funding reductions, and align the program with Bridge and Pavement asset management priorities,” according to the Division of Statewide Planning.
This shuffling of earmarked resources Pflaumer said is part of the “shell game Rhode Island loves to play.” He noted that with few exceptions at the state level — he specifically mentioned RIDOT’s Office of Transit as one such example — “nobody cares at all” about alternative modes of transportation.
“It’s sort of appalling,” said Pflaumer, who worked in the planning departments at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and for the town of Middletown before his time at the Division of Statewide Planning.
He noted that the state has commitments to include bicycle and pedestrian facility enhancements in all roadway projects, but “it’s an obligation we are utterly failing to meet.”
During his time working for the state, Pflaumer, who noted that he spent considerable time at the Division of Statewide Planning signing off on work done by consultants, said the only guiding principle he routinely observed was the effort to “rebuild all things as is as quickly as possible.” He pointed to the 6-10 Connector project as a great example.
“There’s no thought given to is as quick as possible the best choice or would it be worth doing things right,” Pflaumer said. “It’s 2019 and we are building mistakes that will outlive my professional career.”
When he questioned that philosophy, Pflaumer said he would inevitably hear “that’s just how we do it.” He said he was told repeatedly that “our primary concern right now is asset management. We have the worst bridges and roads in the country.”
“A clever observer might say, ‘OK, but if we’re gonna rebuild a bridge couldn’t we make it a better bridge when we rebuild it?’” he said. “I have yet to hear anything approaching a satisfactory answer to that.”
He noted that RhodeMap RI plan, which included increasing transportation options, protecting open space, increasing affordable and energy-efficient housing, expanding education and job opportunities, and better planning for future growth, was essentially scrapped by state officials for being too progressive.
He said when municipal officials are caught off-guard by a RIDOT repaving or reconstruction project and request changes that better fit with their city or town’s comprehensive plan, the state agency becomes a bully.
“In theory it is the responsibility of municipalities to tell the Department of Transportation what they want when a project gets done,” Pflaumer said. “The problem is that municipalities don’t have the kind of staff to proactively monitor the Department of Transportation. The Department of Transportation will show up in February, drop of plans, and say this is what we are going to do with your road this summer. Then the municipality has two options. They can say we don’t like this and we would like these changes or they can sign off. If they want changes, this is where the sort of bully tactics come in. OK, if you want to change anything these are already 90 percent planned and we’re going out to bid for construction. If you want to change anything, we’re going to push it back a year. It’s a brutal way of doing things.”
He noted that a final vote on what would be Rhode Island’s first statewide initiative to strategically expand the state’s bike path network keeps being delayed, because it includes ideas that push the state’s guiding principle: rebuild all things as is as quickly as possible. The State Planning Council is the entity responsible for approving the plan, but the Division of Statewide Planning needs to put it on a meeting agenda for the 27-member council to formally view the plan.
The Bicycle Mobility Plan “seeks to safely and efficiently connect people and places so that bicycling in the Ocean State becomes safe and fun for all ages.”
The 113-page draft document — part of the Rhode Island Moving Forward 2040 plan — lists eight goals: connect and expand the state’s bicycling network; integrate bicycling with transit and other modes of transportation; develop stronger statewide bicycling policies; promote equity in bicycle planning and funding; increase bicycle safety with policies and programs; leverage bicycling to promote economic development; improve public health through bicycling; and promote bicycle transportation for Rhode Island employees.
TIP for TAP
The largest single portion of RIDOT’s TAP cut is a $14.9 million reduction in the program’s general contingency account, “which reflects the improved scoping and scheduling methodologies being adopted,” according to the agency’s major amendment.
The state’s TIP for fiscal years 2018-2027, though, highlights the importance of setting aside money to fund pedestrian and bicycle facilities, recreational trails, safe routes to school projects, and environmental mitigation related to stormwater and habitat connectivity.
According to the RIDOT website, “Our robust Transportation Alternatives Program funds a variety of projects and programs you might not necessarily associate with RIDOT. These often include improvements supporting walkers and bicyclists including walking routes, bike lanes and streetscape projects aimed at supporting safe and efficient transportation.”
At less than 3 percent of the state’s transportation budget before the recently proposed cuts, advocacy groups note that the TAP budget is already underfunded. The money RIDOT wants to scoop out would be used for, among other things, road paving, the 6-10 Connector project, and bridge work.
The state typically spends between $400 million and $500 million annually on transportation projects. Most of that money is used to fund street paving and bridge repair. Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities combined spend millions more annually on road paving.
The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition is among the critics of RIDOT’s proposed delays and cuts.
“We object, in the strongest possible terms, to the amendment proposed by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation,” according to the Providence-based advocacy group. “Funds in the Transportation Alternatives Program should not be raided for highway infrastructure projects or other priorities.”
The organization noted that RIDOT has proposed slashing funding for bicycle projects despite 78 percent voter approval for the 2018 Green Economy Bond, which included $5 million for state bikeway development. A 2016 Green Economy Bond received 67 percent voter approval and included $10 million to expand the state’s bikeway network.
After the 2018 Green Economy Bond was passed, work funded by the TIP for TAP projects was essentially replaced by voter-approved bond money, as $5 million earmarked in the RIDOT budget for bicycle projects is now being reallocated for bridge work. Basically, the state is using accounting tricks to shortchange alternative transportation projects by $5 million.*
The Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition has noted that the state needs proper bicycling infrastructure, such as separated lanes. Green Economy Bond voters weren’t asked to approve more sprayed-painted road bicycles.
Coalition board member Christian Roselund said the state in recent history hasn’t been a leader in spending on bicycle infrastructure projects, or on alternative transportation in general. He noted that some of the biggest gaps in Rhode Island’s bike path network are created by state-owned roads and bridges.
“We’ve seen outright hostility toward bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure from RIDOT for years,” he said.
Another Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition board member, Kathleen Gannon, said the state doesn’t adequately support multimodal transportation efforts that include buses, walking, bicycles, electric bicycles, and scooters. This ongoing neglect and the recent amendment proposal, she said, has and will have an impact on safety, undermines what people want, and effects the economic development of cities and towns.
“People want bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, as evidenced by the recent passage of the Green Economy Bond. They want money spent on this,” Gannon said. “The state is more than its roads. I personally feel RIDOT is stuck in a time warp. They seem to think that roads are for cars and that’s it. Our position is roads are for people and people use a variety of transportation modes. We need to make room, and there is room for everyone to have a safe way to travel on the roads.”
Alternative transportation projects proposed to be delayed, cut, or canceled by the RIDOT request include the William C. O’Neill (South County) Bike Path extension in South Kingstown, the Woonasquatucket Greenway extension, City Walk and on-road connections in Providence, the Ten Mile River Greenway extension in East Providence, the Trestle Trail in Coventry to connect to paths in Connecticut, the Blackstone Bikeway in Woonsocket, and the Warren Bike Path.
Bike Newport executive director Bari Freeman called the RIDOT amendment request “pretty shocking.”
“The TAC created the contingency fund in response to these statewide coalitions and in order to ensure assignment of those funds to align with the statewide Bicycle Mobility Plan priorities. Those funds are untouchable,” said Freeman, who sits on both the TAC and the Bicycle Mobility Plan committees. “Our state electorate resoundingly voted those funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects. That’s not approval — that’s a mandate, and they will not be redirected to highway or any project other than those for which they were intended.”
Freeman, who is also a member of the Paths to Progress coalition that advises the state on bicycle and pedestrian project planning and funding, noted that on Aquidneck Island, RIDOT’s request eliminates funding for the Melville Connector and the Mount Hope Bay Path in Portsmouth and the shared use path and sidewalks on East Main Road in Portsmouth and Middletown, and delays the scheduled improvements to Thames Street, Spring Street, Farewell Street, Bellevue Avenue, and Marlborough Street in Newport to 2023 and beyond.
Portsmouth Town Council member Daniela Abbott is among those opposed to the proposed funding cuts to bicycle and pedestrian projects.
“East Main Road is finally getting the sidewalks and bike paths so desperately overdue for transportation safety,” she said. “These cuts are not considering people’s safety, connectivity, or economy.”
The Portsmouth Town Council is expected to vote on a resolution rejecting the major amendment.
Despite concerns about the proposed cuts and delays to alternative transportation projects, Freeman is confident a solution can be reached. She said it only makes sense, for example, that if the state still plans to pave East Main Road that it would incorporate the bicycle and pedestrian aspects of the project while that road work is being done.
“RIDOT is a partner and shares concerns with advocacy groups about road user safety,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like these changes are necessary. We can address this together.”
ecoRI News e-mailed RIDOT to request an interview with an agency official(s). A RIDOT spokesman responded by writing that, “I will see what we can do regarding an interview. In the meantime, here is a statement we’ve been sharing with media about this topic …”
We weren’t granted an interview.
The agency’s four-paragraph crafted statement claimed no bicycle projects have been eliminated. RIDOT’s canned response also noted that there is $4.7 million allocated for bicycle and pedestrian projects this year and a total of nearly $60 million worth of bike projects in the 10-year plan.
However, next to two bicycle-specific projects in RIDOT’s proposed major amendment — the “Aquidneck Island Bikeway-Melville” and the “Mount Hope Bay Bicycle Improve” — is the explanation: “Project is being eliminated due to funding availability.”
Two other projects in the amendment request — “East Main Road Sidewalks” and the “Woonsocket River Landing” — would also be eliminated because of a lack of funding.
Pflaumer called the first sentence in the RIDOT statement — “We have not eliminated any bike projects.” — “an outright lie.” He wrote in an e-mail that “at the very least the Aquidneck Island Bikeway, Mount Hope Bay Bicycle Improvements, East Main Shared Use Path, Providence Bicycle Infrastructure Improvements, Green Economy Bond Contingency Fund (established to hold funding for the prioritized list of projects created by the Bicycle Mobility Plan), and Transportation Alternatives Program Contingency Fund are all listed as eliminated.”
He also noted that several pedestrian projects are on the chopping block and that numerous other projects have been pushed back outside the portion of the TIP required to be fiscally constrained.
“All projects with a reason cite funding availability but … there is $20 million in contingency funds specifically slated to INCREASE the number of projects done but that is all to be eliminated as well,” he wrote. “As far as having $60 million in bike projects in the ten year TIP that’s fairly meaningless … we have no issues eliminating projects that are listed or continually pushing them back.”
RIDOT’s statement paints the situation differently. “We are intent on building them and we want to build them. We are delaying some as a result of reduced funding to RIDOT and we must use our limited funds for vital safety concerns. We have made the necessary changes to our 10-year plan and the TIP to assure that we fulfill our mission to repair the state’s structurally deficient bridges and keep these structures safe.”
Left unsaid is the fact that Rhode Island’s bridges and roads in disrepair got that way because RIDOT higher-ups failed to do their jobs and the Statehouse preferred to focus on other things, such as trying to eliminate the car tax, than making sure infrastructure improvements were adequately funded.
This same lack of leadership four years ago led to the Environmental Protection Agency taking RIDOT to court for illegally discharging polluted runoff into local waters. The feds stepped in because the state failed to adequately enforce the Clean Water Act and the terms and conditions of RIDOT’s national pollutant discharge elimination system permit.
Responding to a follow-up ecoRI News e-mail, the RIDOT spokesman noted that some projects have been delayed beyond the TIP period — beyond 2027 — because of a “lack of funding availability.” He also noted that as part of the TIP major amendment, “RIDOT is proposing a line item for bike safety and bike path state of good repair projects. It includes an additional $11 million for bike paths over the next 10 years.”
He wrote that the “decisions were made in accordance with RIDOT’s asset management analysis that concluded those projects have a lower priority compared to the 1,100 other projects in the 10-year plan. Because the TIP is updated annually, those projects can be resubmitted by cities and towns during next year’s TIP solicitation process for reconsideration.”
“I think it’s important for your readers to know that deferments were made to our pavement program as well,” he wrote. “Approximately $20 million in requested state funds were not granted to RIDOT, requiring the many adjustments you are asking about.”
Public comments sought
Opponents of the proposed amendment claim municipal officials and alternative transportation advocates weren’t consulted before the proposal to cut or delay projects was announced. They say RIDOT seems to have made arbitrary decisions about the suitability of projects that had been carefully developed over years, some even decades.
“We’ve been planning the Blackstone Bikeway for five decades” Bob Billington of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council said. “I am disappointed by the delays and very concerned about the elimination of the Ten Mile River Greenway extension. We’ve fought hard for this money and connecting our great recreational resources. It’s frustrating to be going backwards. Of course, disappointment is just one impact of the proposed changes. Towns and cities counting on the long-promised projects will face economic development impacts.”
Other local advocacy groups are also frustrated.
“The state promised that the South County Bike Path would begin this final section in 2017,” David Smith of the Friends of the William C. O’Neill South County Bike Path said. “RIDOT dragged its feet, even as the town of Narragansett voted three times in support of the extension. In 2018, RIDOT still did nothing, and now proposes arbitrarily changing the route, slashing the funding, and delaying the project further.”
The final decision on the proposed amendment falls to the State Planning Council. The council is housed within the Department of Administration and most of the board’s membership is appointed by the governor. Its 27 members include Michael DiBiase, director of the Department of Administration; Rosemary Powers, the governor’s deputy chief of staff; Meredith Brady, associate director for the Division of Statewide Planning; Peter Alviti, RIDOT’s director; and Janet Coit, Department of Environmental Management director.
The State Planning Council, is by law, supposed to be an independent agency. It’s Rhode Island’s only Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which are created and designated to carry out a metro area’s transportation planning.
However, since Rhode Island’s only MPO has more than 50 percent of its seats controlled by the governor, true independent decision-making isn’t realistic. It becomes just another political tool.
MPOs are reviewed periodically by committees led by the U.S. Department of Transportation to make sure they operate as federal law requires. The State Planning Council had its review last year, and several problems were found, including the fact the governor controls a majority of the votes.
Among the corrective actions listed in the April 2018 federal report is that Rhode Island’s MPO “must develop a documented process for local elected officials from local governments and other governmental agencies to participate in the planning process for developing the TIP.”
The 64-page U.S. Department of Transportation report also noted that the “MPO, RIDOT, and RIPTA must develop a listing of obligated projects on an annual basis. The roles and responsibilities for compiling and publishing the list should be documented to ensure that this federal requirement is met regardless of any changes in staffing over time.”
* The story was updated Feb. 20 to note that Green Economy Bond money approved by voters in 2018 isn’t being directly taken to fund bridge repair work.
Editor’s note: Bari Freeman is a member of the ecoRI News board of directors.