Critics Urge Senate Not to Reappoint Alviti as RIDOT Director
Emphasis on road infrastructure has come at the cost of other forms of transit
March 1, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Mass transit, climate, and environmental groups are asking lawmakers to reject the reappointment of Peter Alviti as director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, for what they view as an overly car-centric approach to state policy.
Advocates say RIDOT has done an excellent job at improving and repairing state roads and bridges, which the department has aggressively pursued since the implementation of the RhodeWorks program in 2015, but it needs a better track record if the state is going to execute its Transit Master Plan or meet the emission reduction mandates of the Act on Climate law.
According to critics, the department has focused on widening and expanding existing highways and ignoring the state’s pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. For them it’s about policies, not personalities; many would be happy with Alviti if he listened to their concerns.
Alviti, who has headed RIDOT since 2015 when he was appointed by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, defended his record as director Tuesday night during a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee. In a lengthy speech to lawmakers, Alviti characterized his record as agency director as a reformer and modernizer, cleaning up a department left in disarray.
“The real problem was RIDOT itself,” he said at the Feb. 28 hearing. “It was using antiquated project delivery methods, there was no sustainable funding for projects or planning for that funding.”
Aliviti said he completely reorganized the department into a modern project delivery machine and worked closely with lawmakers to craft that sustainable source of funding for infrastructure repair, the RhodeWorks program. Before the collections stopped after a federal judge deemed it unconstitutional, the program, which charges tolls on the largest trucks that contribute to the most wear and tear on state roads, was on track to collect $4.9 billion over 10 years for infrastructure projects.
The department has overseen more than 300 projects and received $719 billion in grants and other federal funding for its work, according to Aliviti.
But emphasis on road infrastructure has come at the cost of all other forms of transit, critics charge. They say RIDOT quietly shelved its Transit Master Plan (TMP) and Bicycle Mobility Plan, failed to account for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in its projects, and failed to develop a plan to spend the $35 million bond approved by voters in 2014 for statewide mass transit hubs.
Barry Schiller, a self-described lifetime bicyclist and transit user and a former longtime member of the state Transportation Advisory Committee, told lawmakers that discretionary funds in RIDOT should be used to fund transit alternatives and pointed to the lack of progress on state-commissioned plans.
“There’s been no progress on the state bike plan from the Transportation Advisory Committee; we still haven’t gotten to downtown Woonsocket [with a bike path], we haven’t gotten from Pawtucket down to Connecticut, we haven’t reached the beaches in Narragansett, we haven’t done anything on Aquidneck Island,” Schiller said.
Cars remain king in Rhode Island and that’s a growing environmental problem. The latest GHG Inventory from the state Department of Environmental Management shows nearly 40% of all emissions in Rhode Island come from the transportation sector, with the vast majority coming from highway vehicles.
The state continues to rank toward the bottom in terms of funding for transit, spending only $18.51 per capita in Rhode Island, with Connecticut and Massachusetts spending $67.84 and $238.76 respectively.
Total emissions from highway vehicles have decreased 0.77 million metric tons since 1990, but Rhode Island will need significant cuts across all emitting sectors to reach the 45% reduction mandated by the Act on Climate law. Transit advocates have long argued implementing the TMP would achieve 80% of the state climate action required by the legislation, both reducing miles traveled in cars and their related emissions.
“We still have no plan to reduce GHG emissions that would require reducing miles traveled and that is something RIDOT has refused to do,” said Christian Roselund, renewable policy analyst for Clean Energy Associates.
Under questioning from senators, Alviti wouldn’t confirm whether meeting the 45% reduction in highway vehicles would be RIDOT policy, but said the agency would be working with the state’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council to model scenarios on GHG reductions.
“I think during the next year or so we’ll be able to bring it into better focus for you,” Alviti said.
Alviti’s tenure hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing. Under his leadership, RIDOT has come under fire by transit users for attempting to break up Kennedy Plaza as the main bus hub for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
In 2016, some Providence residents were advocating for the dilapidated 6-10 Connector in the western portions of the city to be replaced with a boulevard that was friendlier to non-car users, but RIDOT ultimately decided to simply rebuild a new version of the existing highway system with minor concessions to bikes and pedestrians. (The project’s contractor, Massachusetts-based Barletta Heavy Division Inc., has been charged with illegally disposing of solid waste and using the project site as an environmental dumping ground.)
It’s pedestrian safety, however, that remains a chief concern for the state’s transit advocates, who point to two recent incidents: Judge Richard Licht was struck by a Jeep crossing Smith Street on Feb. 15 and Zachary Richardson was struck by a car and died crossing North Main Street not too far from the Statehouse.
It’s an issue that took a turn toward the personal Tuesday, when local resident Hayley Buckey, who was struck by a car in October, read the police report narrative from the incident, noting that it happened during the day and roads were dry.
“The point is, I want RIDOT streets to be safer and more encouraging,” Buckey said.
Her testimony didn’t sit well with some in attendance. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, loudly objected to Buckey’s remarks, banging on the table and arguing they weren’t relevant to the proceedings.
Other senators noted that some of the criticisms of Alviti stemmed from actions by previous governors, while others praised the work of RIDOT’s staff in making the department more transparent and bringing road infrastructure back to life.
“I think the number of projects and number of dollars put to work across the state has been tremendous,” Majority Leader Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, said.
Alviti’s confirmation was voted out of committee, and could receive a floor vote as early as next week.