Rhode Island’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Department of Transportation's plans for 6-10 Connector contradict advice from experts invited to speak at a recent public meeting. State agency intends to maintain connector as highway.
March 26, 2016
PROVIDENCE — There was a difference of opinion at a recent public meeting about the reconstruction of the dilapidated 6-10 Connector. Three national experts with highway-removal experience recommended prioritizing pedestrian mobility and local car trips. Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) director Peter Alviti expressed a commitment to accommodating local and regional trips on more equal footing.
No one disagrees that the 6-10 Connector needs attention. Seven of nine bridges along the route are classified as structurally deficient. More than a decade ago, many of those bridges were reinforced with wooden buttresses. Now, ironically, the braces themselves have fallen into disrepair and need replacement, according to Alviti.
For decades, RIDOT has struggled internally over how to proceed with the 6-10 Connector. Alviti noted that after 30 years of design work, the plans to reconstruct the connector were only 30 percent complete when he was appointed as director last year. Furthermore, the plans called for a nearly identical reconstruction of the highway, despite the poor performance of the existing design, and the steep cost such a plan would entail.
“Historically, the way (RIDOT) has reacted is to rebuild what was (already) there — taking the worst conditioned roadways and bridges and rebuilding them over and over and over again. This led to the state having one of the worst transit systems and worst bridge and roadway systems in the country,” Alviti said during his presentation at the March 23 event. “We’ve set out to break that cycle.”
A different vision
The conversation surrounding the 6-10 Connector changed dramatically in 2014, after James Kennedy, author of the blog Transport Providence, proposed a completely different configuration for the highway. Kennedy recommended replacing the highway with a boulevard that would accommodate cars, pedestrians, cyclists and transit users.
Kennedy claimed traffic flow through the corridor would counterintuitively improve if the highway was drastically reduced in size and scope. He cited similar projects along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the West Side Drive in New York City, and the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee.
A boulevard would also benefit neighborhoods, which have suffered for half a century because of their proximity to the 6-10 Connector, according to Martina Haggerty, associate director of special projects for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. The connector effectively isolates Federal Hill and the West End from Valley, Olneyville and Silver Lake despite these neighborhoods sharing borders; the connections that do exist, via overpasses and underpasses, aren’t inviting to pedestrians. The neighborhoods have suffered economically and their residents experience negative health impacts because of the connector, she said.
Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer who focuses on urban design and one of three invited speakers at the recent public meeting, said the 6-10 Connector is designed to allow suburban commuters to access the city or I-95 traveling at high speed, at the expense of the quality of life and air quality of the residents of adjacent neighborhoods.
“There comes a point, from a policy perspective, where it makes sense for the community to have regional commuters driving on (the community’s) terms, and not on some kind of long-distance commute terms,” he said.
Haggerty said a boulevard would reintegrate affected neighborhoods, convert up to 80 acres of state-maintained, right-of-way land into revenue-generating, developable real estate, and improve the overall health of nearby communities.
After decades of delay, funding is finally available to reconstruct the 6-10 Connector. RhodeWorks, RIDOT’s recently approved, 10-year transportation plan, allocates $400 million in state funds to the connector. The project is also eligible for $400 million in matching federal funds, because it will incorporate a bus-rapid-transit route. Furthermore, RIDOT will apply for an additional $100 million in federal grant money available to projects that include pedestrian and bike features and improve disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The allocation of funding has changed the conversation about the 6-10 Connector’s future from theoretical to tangible, and stakeholders have taken note. The city of Providence and the American Planning Association of Rhode Island organized the March 23 public meeting to build support for a multimodal connector that restores connectivity between adjacent neighborhoods.
While not stated explicitly, the remarks of city staff and the homogeneous viewpoints of the three invited presenters imply the city’s preference is a complete replacement of the highway with a boulevard. Event sponsors included environmental groups, neighborhood associations, developers and downtown businesses, each, presumably, with an interest in a boulevard-oriented connector.
The event was attended by about 300 members of the public. Based on their reactions during the presentations and the public comments offered, most favored a multimodal, less-isolating connector.
Peter Park, the former planning director of Milwaukee and Denver, began his presentation with a simple idea: “Remove a highway, improve a city.” Park oversaw the highway-to-boulevard transformation of Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway, and the redevelopment of Denver’s Union Station into the hub of the largest public transit project in the country.
According to Park, it was never the intent of the people who developed the interstate highway system in the mid-20th century for highways to travel through cities. Instead, drivers were intended to exit the highway and access the city via a grid of boulevards that could provide more efficient access to local destinations. While highways limit where people can enter, exit and cross, boulevards allow drivers to enter, exit and cross at logical locations based on their destinations, thus reducing bottlenecks and congestion.
Park said removing highways as a way of improving cities is not a theory. Numerous case studies have proven that a multitude of benefits — place-making, tourism and recreation, development, connectivity — are realized, and that traffic doesn’t metastasis, as is regularly predicted, he said.
“Where do the cars go? They go where they want to go, faster than they did before,” Park said.
He said it’s up to mayors to fight for highway-to-boulevard conversions. Federal and state processes are set up in a way that perpetuate building and rebuilding highways, he said.
“Their process is about mitigating the impact of a highway, more than it is about giving consideration to an alternative,” Park said. “Local leadership is the only way it happens.”
Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and chair of the Bronx River Alliance, spoke about the 19-year struggle of a South Bronx neighborhood demanding the removal of the Sheridan Expressway. The expressway separates residents in the low-income, majority minority neighborhood from waterfront parks on the Bronx River and contributes to the neighborhood’s high rate of asthma.
In the two decades since the New York State Department of Transportation announced its intent to extend the 1.2-mile expressway, advocates of removing the expressway have built a coalition of community members and planning and policy experts, who have worked with local and state leaders to achieve their goal.
In 2001, the state agency agreed to consider removing the expressway. In 2007, it withdrew its plan to extend the expressway. In 2013, New York City endorsed an expressway-to-boulevard proposal, which now resides on Mayor Bill De Blasio’s list of priority projects.
“Don’t be the victims of your transportation network. Be the beneficiaries of it,” Vanterpool said.
Lockwood, the transportation engineer, also advocated for tearing down urban highways. The purpose of cities is to promote efficient social and economic exchanges. Urban highways, he said, decrease efficiency by spreading people and exchanges farther apart.
He cautioned against one form of highway reconstruction: a tunnel or cap. “Capping a highway gives the illusion that you can have it both ways — that you can have great stuff happening on top and have the highway underneath,” Lockwood said. “However, (a cap) still rewards the long trip, creates the parking issues, (requires) ramps — still has the baggage.”
Lockwood said a cap is most common when traffic modelers control the project. Modelers assume that the number of cars using a road will remain the same after a reconstruction project, even if a highway is replaced with a boulevard. Case studies have shown that this isn’t accurate, he noted, and that traffic issues don’t arise because of highway-to-boulevard conversions.
“If the people who believe in modeling control the process, you’re going to get another highway,” Lockwood said. “If people who believe in community control it, then you are going to get a community-friendly outcome.”
He described Boston’s big dig as a project that was controlled by traffic modelers. The resulting cap created several desirable city blocks, he said, but at both ends, the highway comes out of the tunnel and “barfs all over” the surrounding communities.
The overwhelmingly pro-boulevard event left RIDOT director Alviti in the uncomfortable position of being the speaker most hesitant to consider removing the highway. “Coming to you from a place called the Department of Transportation, I feel a little out of sorts with the previous speakers,” he said after taking the stage following the other speakers.
Alviti agreed that the reconstructed 6-10 Connector should be multimodal in nature and offer more connectivity between neighborhoods, but he expressed concerns about the highway-to-boulevard approach. He implied that the connector’s level of service — some 100,000 cars daily — is too high to be accommodated by a boulevard. He also said the railroad tracks adjacent to the connector and the elevation difference between neighborhoods on opposing sides of the highway would continue to make connectivity challenging.
During a panel discussion, Alviti asked the other speakers a question that expressed his concern for suburban commuters. “There (are) competing interests on this project. There are regional interests where commuters from outside the city use (the 6-10 Connector) to pass through Providence rather than connect to local roads,” he said. “When you have regional use that would be displaced or inconvenienced for the sake of the local conveniences that would be afforded through (highway removal), how do you reconcile those two and how do you make provisions to still provide service to the regional users?”
Lockwood’s response further crystallized the differing views of the DOT director and the urbanist experts. He suggested the commuters would have to use an alternative route, such as I-295, to avoid the city. If they elected to pass through the city, it would be on the city’s terms.
“If they decide that they want to live 20 miles away and commute downtown then they need to pay that time tax,” he said. “(City residents) shouldn’t have to pay with their quality of life, health and everything else.”
Commuters receive a “public-social-health subsidy” for living far away from their jobs that people who live near their jobs don’t receive, Lockwood said. The commuter “gets priority in funding, design and space. Why are we spending so much money to reward the problem, when we should be rewarding the solution?”
Put a cap on it
During his presentation, RIDOT director Alviti unveiled early renderings of the agency’s designs for the 6-10 Connector. The renderings show the location where routes 6 and 10 merge between Olneyville and the West End.
In the renderings, the highways enter a tunnel as they merge together and travel along their present-day route under a cap. The cap includes local roads, a bike path and park space. A bus-rapid-transit line is included down the center of the connector and reached by descending into bus stations accessed from the cap.
After the recent meeting, RIDOT deputy director, Peter Garino, explained that initially a cap could be built between Olneyville and the West End and another could be built further north around Dean Street between Federal Hill and Valley. Over time, the space between them could be filled, he said.
The highway is basically maintained in its current form and, therefore, is likely to experience similar congestion. Alviti estimated that the bus-rapid-transit route could have ridership of 10,000 people a day, but the remaining 90,000 cars may be left to sit in traffic in the tunnels leading to the sprawling I-95 interchange.
Lockwood suggests that the reason the connector is congested is because it’s carrying both regional and local traffic. “Do people have to come downtown to get on (I-95), then go 45 miles somewhere else? I don’t think that is the right role of a downtown.”
In his closing remarks, Park emphasized that the 6-10 issue isn’t a technical one, but a political one.
“Engineers are very smart, they figure out all kinds of stuff,” he said, “It’s a question of the criteria that they are designing and engineering to. If it’s just been focused on moving vehicles, than that’s what you’ll get. If it’s about making great cities, strengthening neighborhoods, and connecting people then there is more too it.”