If Rhode Island Really Wants to Reduce Climate Emissions, New RIDOT Leadership Required
February 27, 2023
No matter how many acres are clear-cut to make way for ground-mounted solar arrays or wind turbines pounded into the seafloor, Rhode Island will never realize its greenhouse gas reduction mandates without addressing the transportation sector.
The way people move about in Rhode Island is the leading producer of climate emissions, at nearly 40% of all greenhouse gases spewed annually from the Ocean State.
The director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation has done little to nothing to address the climate crisis and the state’s Act on Climate law. In fact, he typically gets in the way of progress. He treats pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders as an inconvenience. Bike lanes, speed humps, sidewalks, and bus stops don’t fit into his narrow view of transportation.
On Feb. 28 at about 4:30 p.m., the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing for Peter Alviti. He shouldn’t be reappointed as RIDOT’s director, not if the state wants to actually reduce climate emissions. Alviti, appointed in February 2015 by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, supports a car-centric transportation culture. He has shown nothing but contempt for other modes of transit.
He threw a temper tantrum in 2021 over the transformation of South Water Street in Providence into a more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly roadway. Streets are the capital city’s largest public asset, covering some 13% of Providence’s total land area, and the Providence Great Streets Initiative is seeking to make them more than just a place to drive and park cars.
Alviti threatened legal action, hoping to reclaim some $4.4 million in federal money granted to the city two decades ago. He told then-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,” he wrote in a letter to the city. 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.
When he’s not badgering Providence for creating bicycle 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.
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, bicyclists, and transit users and wouldn’t isolate neighborhoods. It also would have likely cost less.
At a March 2016 public forum, Alviti said RIDOT was looking to make it safe for commuters, but will also take the city’s priorities into consideration. He admitted he was not in favor of the proposed highway-to-boulevard idea, but said his agency recognized the city’s concerns about the negative impacts the highway has on the neighborhoods that surround it and that a more context-sensitive design could alleviate some of those problems. He said he was in favor of a “hybrid” approach to reconstructing the six-decade-old Connector.
“I happen to be of the philosophy that the two are not mutually exclusive,” Alviti said. “That the two can coincide in a way that mend neighborhoods in an urban area, [offers] recreation, additional economic development, pedestrian and bike transport, and increases the effectiveness of our transit system, while still maintaining a level of service for vehicles that use this corridor for their livelihoods and the transportation of goods and services.
“This is a singular opportunity, something that comes along once in a lifetime.”
RIDOT ultimately decided to rebuild the 6-10 Connector in basically the same manner it was originally built in the 1950s, with some pedestrian and bicycle accommodations sprinkled in.
Under Alviti’s leadership, RIDOT has largely ignored the Transit Master Plan and the Bicycle Mobility Plan — taxpayer-funded reports commissioned to improve the way people move about in Rhode Island to reduce pollution and congestion, mitigate the climate crisis, and make transportation more equitable.
Last July, a group of 36 organizations sent a letter to Rhode Island’s gubernatorial candidates outlining their concerns about the state’s transportation system and recommending policies they believe the next administration needs to adopt. The idea for the letter was largely born out of years of the state stonewalling transportation progress.
“Rhode Island’s outdated transportation system is failing to keep pace with the needs of our residents, our economy and our planet,” according to the eight-page letter. “We believe that Rhode Islanders deserve a transportation system that provides for their diverse mobility needs, reduces air pollution, improves local economic development, supports affordable housing development, and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.”
It starts with new RIDOT leadership.
Editor’s note: Senior reporter and ecoRI News co-founder Frank Carini will transition to a full-time columnist in April. His “A Frank Take” will run weekly. This is a preview of what to expect.
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