Will RIDOT Pay Any Attention to Public Comments About Its Carbon Reduction Strategy?
November 6, 2023
As transportation produces the most climate change emissions, there is now some federal transportation funding which, in order to obtain, requires the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to file a “carbon reduction strategy” (CRS). So RIDOT drafted a CRS that was open for public comment that had a Nov. 3 deadline for input.
One response was a sign-on letter organized by the Acadia Center and a group of “transportation decarbonization” activists that generated 20 signatures from climate, environmental, bike, and transit groups asking for changes in the plan. The letter notes a need to improve its methodology, to better engage stakeholders, to give more priority to implementing the state’s officially adopted transit and bike plans, and, most importantly, to make it more likely to actually meet climate goals. RIDOT is to review the public comments, but it seems they need not make any changes in what they send to the Federal Highway Administration.
In my opinion, the draft CRS seems less a plan for reducing carbon emissions than an effort to justify to the bureaucracy what RIDOT already has been doing, since despite transportation’s role in the climate crisis, there is little they intend to do any differently.
If you follow the money in RIDOT’s draft CRS, most of it, $416 million, goes to three highway capacity expansions along Routes 146, 295, and 4. Add the ongoing 6-10 intersection and I-95 North projects and the total is more than $1.1 billion on facilitating faster travel on expressways, done in the name of congestion reduction, and claiming reduced carbon emissions as a result. In comparison, only a pittance is being spent on anything else.
This may reduce emissions on the limited length of highways in question, but there needs to be an analysis of overall effects. While every situation is different, many believe that expanding highway capacity induces more vehicle miles as people travel more often over longer distances. People and businesses can move further out into energy-intensive sprawl locations, and sometimes the congestion is just moved elsewhere, perhaps in these cases to where 146 South and 295 South merge into I-95.
Surely prioritizing the expressway enhancements above all else deepens auto dependency, the very thing that has contributed so much to our land use and climate problems.
There is some possible confusion over a related, small $36 million program officially intended for carbon reduction, for which RIDOT proposes a hodgepodge, some of which are not clear as to what they entail — e.g., “safety patrols” and “bridge overpasses” — while $6.6 million of it is for bike path “preservation,” aka repairs, mislabeled as a “mode-shift” strategy.
I made three suggestions for different RIDOT priorities:
Prioritize congestion reduction on crowded streets. Perhaps worse than occasional congestion on the expressways is urban congestion on many major streets, including state roads, where traffic backs up alongside where people live, play, work, bike, walk. One thing that can be done about it is a major investment in smarter traffic signalization. I know we still have traffic lights that turn red even when there is no side traffic, or have long red lights when the side traffic is only one or two vehicles.
There are series of uncoordinated lights where one lurches from one red light to another; they could be timed better. RIDOT should study whether some traffic lights could be removed, or switched to blinking caution during off-peak times. But only $900,000 proposed statewide for traffic signal management in the CRS seems inadequate for all that. For safety reasons, RIDOT has promoted use of roundabouts, which slow but do not stop most traffic at some intersections. As this can also help with emissions, I encourage RIDOT to continue to expand their use as appropriate.
Another way to reduce congestion is better transit and safer walking and biking conditions on urban roadways, reducing the need for car travel. That should be prioritized and implemented as called for in the Transit and Bike Mobility plans. Unfortunately, the draft CRS commits little funding to those plans.
Support TOD. The draft CRS mentions land use but doesn’t seem to fund much of anything to support relatively energy-efficient transit oriented development (TOD) that can help with our serious housing problem without paving over a lot of our remaining countryside. To support TOD, RIDOT should prioritize complete streets programs that make biking and walking safer and easier in TOD areas, and the transit that supports such development. There is a start of that at the Pawtucket-Central Falls transit center, and RIDOT should work with the cities and towns and the new Department of Housing to expand TOD wherever possible.
Promote our rail system. State law puts RIDOT, not RIPTA, in charge of overseeing our rail system. RIDOT has done a good job at the Pawtucket-Central Falls transit center, but the draft CRS doesn’t seem to actually do anything further to improve or promote the rail system, even though the low friction of steel-wheels-on-steel-tracks and the way one car shelters the next from air resistance makes trains potentially much more energy efficient, and thus less carbon emitting, than highway travel. We shouldn’t wait for a federal grant (especially with what is happening in Washington!) to plan commuter rail electrification.
RIDOT should work with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to start that asap, as it would make the service faster, quieter, more reliable, and cleaner, and the catenary wires, a long proven technology, are mostly in place. RIDOT should work with Connecticut to study how to extend the already electrified Shoreline East railway to Rhode Island in hopes of reducing carbon-emitting car travel to major employers in that area. Amtrak too is already electrified and it would help reduce carbon if RIDOT worked out a deal with Amtrak to accept MBTA and/or RIPTA commuter passes on some trains as other states do, especially as Amtrak is so N.Y.-oriented that there can be many empty seats on some trains at the Boston-R.I. end.
Now that there is both bus and commuter rail service in Pawtucket, as well as Providence, Warwick, and North Kingstown, RIDOT should work with RIPTA to produce joint schedules for those locations, and to facilitate MBTA-RIPTA fare integration so that passengers can use either as is appropriate. I suggest RIDOT contact Rep. John Lombardi, D-Providence, who has introduced legislation to try to accomplish that. Finally, as neither the MBTA nor Amtrak markets in Rhode Island, RIDOT could help promote train travel by more widely distributing and posting train schedules as part of the CRS.
So, do you think RIDOT will pay any attention to the public input?
Barry Schiller, a retired Rhode Island College math professor, was a longtime member of the State Planning Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee.
Editor’s note: ecoRI News board president Emily Koo is the program director of the Acadia Center’s Rhode Island chapter.
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