Providence Coalition Forces Officials to Think Smarter About Transportation

(Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr)

The massive 6-10 Connector in Providence, Rhode Island, that carries some 100,000 cars every day is one of the Northeast Corridor’s most well-worn arteries. Nine bridges link Interstate 95 with state and local roadways. A decade ago, some of the spans began to deteriorate and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation installed wooden buttresses to reinforce the weakest structures as a temporary stopgap measure. But today, those buttresses, along with several steel support beams, have fallen into disrepair, putting not only the expressway but also nearby Amtrak powerlines at risk.

Like many expressways built in the 1950s and 1960s, the connector also ended up having an unsavory impact on the surrounding area, walling in several working-class communities in the city’s West End. People living near postwar urban freeways have long suffered from poor health, high poverty, and high unemployment rates. In the Olneyville neighborhood, the connector took a toll on the health of the area’s most vulnerable residents: One in five children who go to school near the freeway has asthma, double the national rate, and more than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, nearly three times the statewide average.

Irked about the deteriorating expressway and the health and safety danger it continued to pose to the neighborhood, a grassroots coalition called Fix the 6-10 demanded that the expressway be scrapped and replaced with a less intrusive, pedestrian-friendly boulevard. The group argued that this type of project would erase the physical barriers between Olneyville, Federal Hill, the West End, and other surrounding neighborhoods and open up spaces for economic development. “The 6-10 really affects the quality of life for people—especially when it comes to pollution and traffic danger,” says James Kennedy, a Fix the 6-10 co-founder.

Established in 2016, the coalition includes about 2,000 local organizations, including neighborhood groups, cyclists, real-estate developers, and even some cost-conscious Tea Party members, along with stalwarts like the Nature Conservancy, Clean Water Action, and the Congress for a New Urbanism. The coalition delivered a clear message to the state officials: A newly designed boulevard would cost less to build and maintain, offer new development opportunities, and reconnect the urban grid in a way that would allow pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and cars to co-exist.

But after losing out on federal funding last year, Rhode Island state transportation officials decided to rebuild the span on its existing footprint, an approach they viewed as simpler and better-suited to accommodating regional traffic, rather than take up the coalition’s idea.

The ensuing battle over the connector pitted Fix the 6-10 coalition against the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT). With the Trump administration pledging to pump $1 trillion into transportation projects nationwide, the Providence controversy previews the battles ahead over the next generation of American infrastructure investments and demonstrates how determined residents can persuade state officials to meet them halfway.

Federal officials estimate that more than 58,000 bridges nationwide are structurally deficient, a number that is likely to increase sharply as the post–World War II infrastructure system nears the end of its lifespan. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that upgrading or replacing these bridges will cost as much as $76 billion. But while America’s roads and bridges are in dire shape, Providence’s 6-10 Connector is in a league of its own. Of the nine bridges that make up the network, the federal government has classified seven of the spans as structurally deficient. The most troubling one is the 6-10’s Huntington Viaduct, which earned a sufficiency rating—a federal formula based on a structure’s ability to meet basic safety and traffic needs—of just 19 out of 100 in a recent survey. By contrast, Minneapolis’s I-35W bridge had earned a score of 50 out of 100 prior to its 2007 collapse.

For nearly 30 years, RIDOT has planned to rebuild the interchange, but could never scrounge up the funding. But local advocates say there are bigger problems: The road system no longer works for the neighborhood or the city. Fix the 6-10 aimed to push state transportation officials to rethink the relationship between freeways and the communities they run through. “The fundamental problem of urban highways is [that] the design of the highway is one of limited access, which is counter to the whole purpose of a city,” says Peter Park, an urban planner who travelled to Providence last March to talk about how to handle the connector’s challenges at a public forum organized by the city and the American Planning Association of Rhode Island. Park has overseen highway-to-boulevard transformation projects as planning director in both Milwaukee and Denver. “Just as a starting point, a boulevard is about better connectivity,” Park told The American Prospect. “It’s true in Providence and true elsewhere.”

Three proposals were on the table: A new boulevard that the local coalition supported, a simple rebuild, and a state-backed plan to rebuild and “cap” the expressway with sidewalks and green space. Of the three proposals, the “cap” plan was the most expensive, at an estimated $595 million. It also depended on securing a $175 million federal grant. RIDOT also had the option of doing a simple rebuild, estimated at $400 million, on state funds alone.

Surprisingly, RIDOT did not complete a formal cost estimate for the boulevard proposal, but advocates and state officials both acknowledge that it was the cheapest plan. Unlike a brand-new expressway, replacing the bridges would produce immediate savings courtesy of less expensive at-grade street crossings. A boulevard would stimulate new tax revenue for the city as new acreage opened up for economic development.

Yet last year, RIDOT Director Peter Alviti expressed concerns about how removing the interchange would affect regional traffic. Alviti also acknowledged a need to move beyond the state’s long-standing plans for a simple rebuild. “Historically, the way [RIDOT] has reacted is to rebuild what was [already] there—taking the worst-conditioned roadways and bridges and rebuilding them over and over and over again,” Alviti said at the March 2016 public forum. “This approach led to Rhode Island having one of the worst transit systems and bridge and roadway systems in the country,” he added. “We’ve set out to break that cycle.” 

Nevertheless, advocates were skeptical. Not only was the “cap” proposal more expensive, it prioritized highway traffic over the needs of Olneyville residents. “A cap mitigates the impact of a highway rather than potentially solving the broader problem,” says Park. Despite these objections, state officials appeared to be moving forward with the “cap” proposal.

But in the summer, federal transportation officials turned down the state’s funding request for the “cap” plan. Soon after, Alviti also changed his mind on the cap. He sent a letter to Governor Gina Raimondo, arguing that the “cap” plan was off the table because of the federal decision. A simple rebuild was the only alternative. Citing long-standing safety concerns with several of the connector’s bridges, RIDOT recommended expediting the rebuild.  

There was another important consideration at work: Only a simple rebuild would qualify for a “categorical exclusion” from what promised to be a lengthy and expensive federal environmental review process. “The time to act is now,” Alviti wrote. Raimondo then shelved the coalition-backed boulevard proposal and vowed to fast-track the rebuild plan. Declaring that “the time is out for debate,” the governor directed RIDOT to finalize the rebuild by the end of 2016.

Despite strong support from Olneyville residents and Mayor Jorge Elorza, Fix the 6-10 representatives concluded that state officials never really took the boulevard proposal seriously. “RIDOT has their own vision of what they want to do, and they’re not really interested in neighborhood impacts,” says Seth Zeren, a transportation planner and co-founder of Fix the 6-10 group

These two problems, budget constraints and top-down decision-making, tend to reinforce one another and they’re hardly unique to Rhode Island, says former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Jeff Mullan who has worked on projects throughout New England. Even with 90 percent of federal transportation funding going directly to states, gridlock on Capitol Hill means inconsistent and unpredictable allocations, which put state transportation departments under constant budget pressure. Those pressures tend to reinforce a “fix it first” strategy: Rather than starting over from scratch, transportation officials patch up roads, bridges, and other systems even though they may have obvious, long-standing problems.

“The government is in an era of scarcity and that calls for hard choices,” Mullan explains. “At the state level, constrained revenues force you into a heavy focus on maintaining infrastructure.”

Differences in the ways city and state officials see infrastructure projects compound this problem. “Engineers [at state agencies] are smart, but so far they’ve [only] been asked how to accommodate traffic,” says Park, the urban planner. “But if we broaden the equation, [to include economic] development [and] public health, it points to different kinds of solutions.”  

The governor’s decision emboldened the Fix the 6-10 coalition, and they continued to champion the boulevard plan, holding public meetings, calling state legislators, and circulating petitions. The coalition also worked with city officials to sidestep the state planning process and hire their own urban designers and engineers to come up with an alternative to a rebuild.

Providence officials maintained a decisive if uneasy alliance with Fix the 6-10. Despite the city’s support for greater community involvement, officials never formally endorsed the boulevard plan and barely pushed back when Governor Raimondo shelved it. But as city officials worked with state leaders in the months after Raimondo’s decision, coalition members prodded the mayor to keep the community in mind. “Without people pushing from the ground up demanding better outcomes, politicians won’t listen,” says Zeren. “All that stuff made it something the governor could not ignore.”

In December, following months of workshops, negotiations, and planning, the pressure paid off. City and state officials compromised on a new plan to remove some sections of the interchanges and rebuild others. The state will take down the two most decrepit bridges. The design calls for shortening the seven remaining spans to open up nearly five acres for new development. The compromise also includes new bike paths and walkways that will give Olneyville residents direct access to surrounding neighborhoods. Fix the 6-10 declared victory but acknowledged the fight is far from over. “We’ll need ongoing vigilance to ensure these gains won’t be lost along the way,” says Zeren.

Meanwhile, the fiscal constraints faced by RIDOT and other state transportation agencies are not likely to improve. President Trump’s infrastructure plan relies on private financing, rather than on bolstering or creating new revenue streams to modernize highways and bridges. “State [officials] want predictable revenue streams; they don’t need access to more debt,” Mullen warns. “State DOTs already know how to borrow money.”

With budget pressures forcing state transportation officials into a fix-it-first mentality, building new urban links may hinge on continued pressure from the people who live in the affected neighborhoods. Scarce resources can be used to maintain the divisions and inequities of the past—but neighborhood leaders, urban planners, and environmental advocates can push back if they want to see state-of-the-art transportation projects built instead of continued reliance on patched-up, outdated ones. “The big challenge is how do you get state DOTs to start taking community-level needs more seriously,” says Zeren. “Until we have a conversation about what our values need to be in transportation infrastructure, we’re going to keep having this same fight.”

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