RIDOT Director’s Shortsightedness Stalls Transit Progress, Climate Action
November 3, 2021
The transportation sector is Rhode Island’s leading producer of climate emissions, at nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gases spewed annually from the Ocean State. One guy is working hard to increase that pollution.
Since he was appointed director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) in February 2015 by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, Peter Alviti Jr. has labored tirelessly to thwart any project that didn’t involve widening a highway. Internal combustion engines and transportation of the 1950s and ’60s are his bailiwick.
He treats pedestrians, bicyclists, climate activists, and RIPTA riders as an inconvenience. Bike lanes, speed humps, sidewalks, and bus stops don’t fit into his narrow view of transportation.
Nearly every time the city of Providence tries to reshape transit to better fit the needs and challenges of the 21st century, Alviti appears to protect the rights of Mustangs, Hornets, Beetles, Barracudas, Thunderbirds, Cobras, Corvettes, and Camaros.
His latest temper tantrum was over the transformation of South Water Street, part of the Providence Great Streets Initiative, which, rightfully, believes city streets belong to more than just cars.
In September — after two years of public hearings were held, mailings sent, and a traffic study done — construction began on reducing South Water Street’s two lanes of vehicle traffic to one. Work also began to add a separated two-way bike lane and adjacent parking spaces.
Before construction was even completed, a group of out-of-touch businesses owners and university representatives complained. They whined to RIDOT, sending a letter to a traffic safety engineer calling for the return of the two lanes of vehicle traffic. They claimed a new traffic count told a “foreboding story.”
Alviti was soon threatening legal action, hoping to reclaim some $4.4 million in federal money granted to the city two decades ago. In early October, he told Mayor Jorge Elorza to “stop all construction activity to the roadway on South Water Street” until RIDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) could ascertain if the work was in violation of a 22-year-old maintenance agreement.
“Also, be advised that failure to comply with this request may place the City in jeopardy to reimburse the State and FHWA for the costs of the 1999 Project in the amount of approximately $4.4 million dollars,” his letter threatened.
This maintenance agreement, signed by the city, RIDOT, and FHWA in July 1999, stated the city was responsible for maintaining all aspects of the project “in a manner satisfactory to the STATE.” This part of the dictator’s, err director’s, letter was also underlined. He also wrote that “any changes another than for transportation purposes require state and federal approval.”
The fact Alviti doesn’t recognize bike lanes and pedestrian paths as transit should disqualify him from being in charge of Rhode Island transportation.
A few weeks after Alviti’s petty correspondence to City Hall, RIDOT issued a statement supporting the cranks’ letter and their fight against progress.
“We sympathize with the abutters but since FHWA is not supportive of any corrective action, we encourage them to seek remedy through City government. However, if the FHWA has no interest in getting involved we have no choice but to let the construction stand.”
Oh, the horror of spoked wheels.
When he’s not badgering the mayor for supporting bike lanes, Alviti is scheming with downtown Providence landlords to take over Kennedy Plaza, threatening to steal money earmarked for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, or suggesting two East Bay Bike Path bridges not be repaired because the effort would cost too much.
After all, the money saved by not fixing the bridges and instead hacking apart the popular bike path and withholding transit funding not dedicated to car culture could be used to widen another road.
Five-plus years ago, when the dilapidated 6-10 Connector was in danger of crumbling because RIDOT skimped on maintenance for decades to save money, the city of Providence, both residents and officials, embraced replacing the maze of concrete and asphalt with a boulevard that would accommodate cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users and wouldn’t isolate neighborhoods. It also would have cost less.
Alviti and RIDOT listened for a little while, but ultimately decided, unsurprisingly, to rebuild the 6-10 Connector in basically the same manner it was originally constructed in the 1950s, with some pedestrian and bicycle accommodations sprinkled in.
The resuscitation of this transportation dinosaur perfectly exemplifies RIDOT’s lack of vision and Alviti’s lack of leadership. Rebuilding the 6-10 Connector ignored decades of U.S. traffic data that show adding more roadway doesn’t lessen congestion.
In fact, the transportation sector follows a simple reality. The more people use cars, the worse automotive transit works, as more climate emissions are emitted and congestion swells. The more people use other forms of transportation, such as trains, buses, bicycles, and feet, the better transit works, with reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and safer roads.
To make downtown Providence, including South Water Street, more walkable, bicycle-friendly, and healthier, perhaps Elorza and city officials should ban cars.
Not difficult to imagine the temper tantrum that would produce.
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.