How Will Rhode Island Spend $8.2 Billion on Transportation?
July 4, 2021
With transportation having such an impact on both daily life and on the environment, the above question is of real importance. You have until 4 p.m. July 12 to submit your opinion to the Rhode Island Division of Statewide Planning. Comments can be submitted here.
But it seems the state’s opinion, as indicated by the draft 10-year 2022-2031 State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) developed mainly by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), is more or less business as usual. I think it’s fair to say that you couldn’t tell from this draft that there is a climate crisis, that an Act on Climate bill passed mandating emission reductions, that there was a recently approved Bicycle Mobility Plan calling for doubling spending on bike and pedestrian infrastructure and a Transit Master Plan (TMP) written prioritizing increased service frequency.
The draft plan allocates $8,190,580,000 for the proposed work.
Because funding must be identified for projects in the first four years of the 10-year plan, while the out-years can be more if a wish list without a commitment, it is the first four years that count.
For those years, funding for the bicycle and pedestrian program, now called “Active Transportation,” instead of doubling is reduced a bit to $52 million, only about 1.8 percent of RIDOT’s budget, ensuring that progress on bicycle infrastructure will remain very slow. The serious money, beyond the expensive repairs of our roads and bridges that almost everyone supports, is for highway capacity expansion.
To take advantage of the potential for active transportation to better meet its potential to help us on public health, climate, land use and the economy, I think beyond more funding it needs a staffed Office of Active Transportation within RIDOT that actually engages with local government and community groups. I would also suggest a pool of money in the STIP for competitive grants for bicycling and walking in local communities, a program that Massachusetts offers.
My town (North Providence) has asked for sidewalks on Smithfield Road, where there has been much development, and equipment designed to clear snow from sidewalks, but with no positive responses seems to have given up on such projects. We need to do better, we need people in RIDOT who care about active transportation and have the resources to help promote it.
On transit, the draft four-year STIP keeps our commuter rail and bus systems going, but the only real expansion is finishing the Pawtucket-Central Falls commuter rail station. There does not seem to be any additional funding for more buses needed to increase service, as called for in the TMP. There is little or no additional funding for electrification of vehicles or commuter rail, even though that is essential for climate goals. This is also an equity issue, as polluting corridors so often go through disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Worse for transit, STIP project No. 5204 gives RIDOT authority to use the transit bond voters approved in 2014 to “reconfigure” the Kennedy Plaza bus hub, meaning to break up and disperse the hub, which will clearly make the bus system more confusing and less convenient.
RIDOT has no experience designing or operating a bus hub, and its plan has been opposed by riders, planners, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, Grow Smart Rhode Island, community groups, civil rights activists and the Providence City Council.
As the riders being disadvantaged are disproportionately poor and people of color, the RIDOT plan has drawn a Title VI civil rights complaint. So much for equity. It also squanders the millions in the transit bond needed to make improvements at hubs throughout the state as called for in the TMP.
I note this is actually Rhode Island’s first official opportunity for public input on RIDOT’s anti-transit reconfiguration. I think the transit bond project should be amended for RIPTA to manage and use to “fund enhancements and renovations to mass transit hub infrastructure throughout the state,” which is what voters were promised by the bond. Unlike RIDOT, RIPTA at least routinely provides for public input in its planning, while RIDOT has no mechanism for public input.
The four-year draft has some expensive highway capacity expansion projects, notably $205 million more for widening Interstate 95 northbound on the Providence Viaduct right in the center of the historic city; $78 million for some new Interstate 295 and Route 37 ramps and a widening of I-295 in the “Cranston Canyon;” $78 million for Route 146, including an overpass at Sayles Hill Road; and $111 million for two projects on Interstate 195, including new ramps and a short additional lane.
All this will encourage more driving and over longer distances, even as the draft STIP has a stated goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled. Experience has often been that increasing road capacity to relieve congestion can result in more widespread congestion due to the induced additional driving. Ugh!
Bottom line: There is nothing transformational in the draft STIP despite our crises in climate, social justice and land use.
That said, I want to acknowledge it’s not all bad. RIDOT seems genuinely trying to improve our bridges and fix the pavement, to deal with stormwater, finish the Pawtucket-Central Falls commuter rail station, they are continuing to gradually extend bike paths, they brought back the Providence-Newport Ferry and they have a strong safety program.
We should also appreciate RIDOT for successfully designing and implementing the tolls on the heavy trucks that do much of the damage to help pay for road maintenance and repairs.
I hope you will indeed submit your thoughts on the draft plan.
North Providence, R.I., resident Barry Schiller is a lifetime transit user and advocate, bicycle rider, RIPTA board member from 1995-99 and for many years the Rhode Island Sierra Club Chapter representative on the Transportation Advisory Committee.