By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Decades of prioritizing cars over all other forms of transportation and building infrastructure to accommodate more and more internal combustion engines has left Rhode Island, and the rest of the country, with a greenhouse-gas problem.
The U.S. transportation sector generates the largest share of climate-changing emissions, as more than 90 percent of the fuel used to move planes, trains, and automobiles is petroleum based.
The solution to this problem is significant investment in public transportation and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), however, continues to take a different approach.
Late last month RIDOT requested a major amendment to Rhode Island’s 10-year state transportation improvement program that included a substantial funding cut to bicycle and pedestrian projects. RIDOT’s request, if approved by the State Planning Council, would delay, reduce, and eliminate nearly $28 million in funding to some three dozen alternative transportation projects statewide.
Drew Pflaumer, who has worked in Rhode Island as a municipal planner in Warren, in RIPTA’s planning department, and as a principal planner for the Division of Statewide Planning, said the state’s paved footprint grows every year while the overall population stays about the same.
“We have a very aggressive emissions target as a state and somehow nobody connects the dots between climate-change goals and maybe we shouldn’t rebuild everything like it’s a freeway in 1970,” the Providence resident said.
That’s essentially what RIDOT did in late 2016. The state agency ignored design ideas presented by Providence officials and concerns from many residents and decided to rebuild the 6-10 Connector basically like it was — car-carrying infrastructure that divides city neighborhoods. This new maze of asphalt will include some added pedestrian and bicycle amenities, but it won’t accommodate bus rapid transit service.
That kind of thinking, said Christian Roselund, a Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition board member, only makes the task of reducing transit-sector climate emissions more difficult and doesn’t support the forward-thinking work being done by many cities and towns.
Roselund, a bicycle commuter and an advocate for progressive transportation solutions, said there has been significant good will and vision by some Rhode Island municipalities, such as Providence and Central Falls, to shift transportation infrastructure choices to provide a larger place for bicycles, pedestrians, and public transit. But many of the key roads and bridges in these cities and towns are controlled by RIDOT and the state agency’s disregard for alternative transportation has created large gaps in existing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, he said.
He also noted that since Rhode Island’s only public transit agency is a state agency the “point of responsibility for many of the actions that would allow us to create the necessary infrastructure is at the state level.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, he and Pflaumer both said, has so far shown limited vision regarding progressive transportation policies that would enable Rhode Island to reduce transit-sector emissions.
“Gina Raimondo just got done signing up with a whole host of other northeastern governors on this transportation collaborative where they’re promising to tackle transportation-sector emissions,” Roselund said. “There couldn’t be a bigger contrast between saying you’re going to do something about transportation emissions and then deciding you are going to cut. The Raimondo administration has never shown much of an appreciation for the economic benefits of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.”
Rhode Island, according to state officials, is on track to meet its emission-reduction target for 2020 — 10 percent below 1990 levels by next year.
To reach a 1990-level reduction of 45 percent by 2035 and an 80 percent decrease 15 years after that, the state is relying on innovation and undeveloped technology to buttress a transition away from burning natural gas and oil.
About 40 percent of Rhode Island’s annual fossil-fuel emissions — some 4.5 million tons of carbon dioxide — are produced by the state’s transportation sector, which includes cars, trucks, buses, boats, planes, and trains.
It’s been projected that 76 percent of Rhode Island’s car and truck travel must come from electric vehicles if the state wants to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. Increasing public transit ridership also would help reduce transportation-sector emissions.
It won’t be an easy transition. This complicated issue, which is made up of many individual decisions, will require more than embracing electric and hydrogen vehicles. It will require a proactive plan, starting now.
“It’s been a struggle for solar and wind. There’s been a lot of misinformation, but that’s nothing compared to struggle we’re going to have with transportation,” Roselund said. “Because sooner or later, whether people like it or not, it’s not going to be OK to drive an internal combustion engine. We just can’t do that and continue to live on a livable planet. Sooner or later that is going to be prohibited in some way or another. That is going to be the biggest political fight.”
Life in the fast lane
Despite being the second-most urbanized state, Rhode Island’s transit mode-share — the percentage of travelers who ride the bus and use other forms of public transportation — stands at about 3 percent.
Rhode Island doesn’t have a program that incentivizes state employees to ride the bus or use alternative transportation. And the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is still funded, in part, by a tax on gasoline, which has lost value as cars have become more fuel efficient and loses value when gas prices spike and more people seek alternative modes of transportation.
“We have adopted goals to reduce emissions, reduce particulate matter, increase the share of Rhode Islanders commuting by public transit, by bike, by foot, telecommuting, anything but driving alone to work,” Pflaumer said. “We have established state goals to reduce vehicle miles traveled. We have established state goals to reduce the amount of money it costs to maintain our infrastructure. We’re not doing any of that. There’s a total lack of concern, and it’s baffling.”
The state’s energy plan, Energy 2035, was adopted a year after the much-ballyhooed Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 was passed and relies on several strategies to achieve reductions to transportation-sector emissions: reduce vehicle miles through investment in alternative modes of transportation, such as public transit, biking and carpooling; promote alternative fuel and electric vehicles through expanding fueling infrastructure and easing upfront costs for consumers through tax incentives; and advocate sustainable development and best land-use practices, such as encouraging density instead of sprawl.
Rhode Island so far hasn’t accomplished much on those three fronts.
Back in 2015, an Office of Energy Resources (OER) official told ecoRI News that transportation-sector emissions will be reduced indirectly through the Resilient Rhode Island Act. The law, however, doesn’t set emission-reduction targets for specific energy sectors such as transportation. The OER official also noted that the board created by the 2014 act, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), will use expert consultants “to help prepare this plan, based on research, modeling, analysis and stakeholder involvement.”
In the five years since the law was passed, Rhode Island has only made modest gains in reducing transportation-sector emissions.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has 12 electric vehicles. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority currently leases several electric buses and is planning replace aging diesel buses with 16-20 electric buses during the next three years. This spring a small fleet of six-person electric buses is expected to offer free rides between the Providence train station and Olneyville Square.
In total, the state has about 150 hybrid and electric vehicles in its fleet. Rhode Island has 86 public and five private electric-vehicle charging stations. The state has one hydrogen filling station, which occupies a corner of the Stop & Shop parking lot on Branch Avenue in Providence.
And while plenty of Rhode Island studies, plans, and reports, since and before Energy 20235, have touted smart-growth principles, these development strategies are still frequently shoved aside when it’s time to put them into practice.
For example, in 2016, a year after the Energy 2035 plan was unveiled, the building of a 420,000-square-foot office park with 2,408 parking spots in the Johnston woods was lauded by Rhode Island’s entire congressional delegation, the governor, the Department of Environmental Management director, and the town’s mayor as an economic development innovation.
The first office park was built in the United States in 1955, in Alabama. That project helped launch decades of zoning laws that encouraged sprawling suburbs and strip-mall highways — think West Main Road in Middletown. Such development patterns, which moved businesses and jobs away from village centers, resulted in freight delivery by truck instead of train and people transporting themselves almost exclusively by car.
The 1950s-era Citizens Bank project repackaged as a “corporate campus” — the 21st-century version has an underground “critter crossing” that allows wildlife to safely cross One Citizens Bank Way — required new on and off ramps to Route 295. RIDOT, that is taxpayers, paid for half, some $3 million.
ecoRI News sent an e-mail to a Department of Administration (DOA) spokeswoman requesting an interview with a DOA and/or Division of Statewide Planning official to discuss state funding and support for alternative transportation projects. No one was made available for an interview — RIDOT also didn’t make anyone available to be interviewed — but the spokeswoman said we could submit questions to her.
We submitted one. “How does the state justify cutting, delaying, and/or eliminating funding for alternative transportation projects (RIDOT’s recently proposed major amendment to the transportation improvement program) when at the same time the state says it wants to reduce climate emissions generated by the transportation sector?”
We didn’t receive a response.