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BRT Makes More Sense for I-95

The Minneapolis "Orange Line" is BRT 

Rhode Island stands with Michigan and Maine as one of three states with shrinking populations as of the last census.  Rhode Island also enjoys the ignoble honor of having the highest unemployment in the country. RIDOT takes neither of these metrics as feedback that might suggest the state should rein in its highway spending, having recently proposed spending an additional $46 Million to expand part of I-95 northbound in Providence, according to Barry Schiller. Schiller notes that the state is seeking $20 Million in federal TIGER grants to help pay for the project.

Schiller, a long-time voice for transit, reported on the news after hearing about it at a recent Transportation Advisory Committee meeting, where RIDOT announced a plan to widen I-95 North from about Broadway to the interstate’s connection with U.S. 146, an approximately 1 mile span. The connection with 146, which goes through northern Rhode Island and central Massachusetts to Worcester, is indeed a site of much congestion, but the extra $46 Million proposal to add two lanes of direct throughway parallel to the interstate where drivers can enter or exit doesn’t take into account any of the well-established evidence that road widening fails to meet decongestion needs. The change in configuration to this section of I-95 also takes into account “weaving” that occurs between exits, which is no doubt a valid concern, but adding lanes has not proven to be a productive solution to weaving.

To put the $46 Million in proper context, a recent bond to repave many of Providence’s streets came to $40 Million. I have criticized the bond for repaving on-street parking spots and then failing to meter them, and have been generally nonplussed with the sharrows that bicyclists got out of the deal, but $40 Million spent repaving many of the streets of our city seems a worthier thing to sink public investment into than a very short span of highway extension that will ultimately fail to improve congestion.

Instead of adding lanes, there are so many more imaginative things Rhode Island could do including BRT and rail expansion.

I-95 could be ripe for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The corridor needs only five pilot stops: Pawtucket, North Main Street, the West Side/Downtown, the South Side, and Cranston (more stops could be added over time to induce greater transit-oriented development). These stops would be accessed through station payment into stairs and ramps to the center lanes of I-95, which would become separated rights-of-way. The configuration is not entirely unlike what T riders between Worcester and Boston experience, with some train stations positions alongside the Mass Pike. In the long-term, I’d like to see the stations beautified and given greater sound- and visual-separation from the highway, but in the immediate future the cost of walling off a right-of-way would not have to be done expensively.

A sixth and important stop could be added to the BRT route at “the Viaduct”, which is a gaping interchange with I-95 and U.S 6 & 10 that I hope will someday disappear, revealing more of the Woonasquatucket River for development, park space, and multimodal travel. The Viaduct is in fact the origin of the $46 Million plan, as RIDOT officials appear to be taking the opportunity they have to maintain the aging interchange as an excuse to expand around it.

How could BRT change the interaction that I-95 has with Rhode Island? Many native Rhode Islanders derisively refer Pawtucket, a small rust-belt city, as “the Bucket”, but as a transplant I’ve found it to be quite beautiful. I-95 cuts through Pawtucket with a locally famed S-curve, which was the city’s attempt to save as many architectural gems as it could when the interstate was built. Nonetheless, I-95 divides Pawtucket even more roughly than it does Providence. Finding a way to convert one of the worst things about the city into a positive would be incredible for economic development there.

Transit advocates raise important concerns about BRT. Although I-95 goes through the downtowns of Pawtucket and Providence, Jef Nickerson of Greater City Providence questions whether BRT would require people to walk through unpleasant quarters of the two cities and sit by a loud highway in order to get use out of the route. Nickerson also cites the potential to develop a Pawtucket station on the T between Providence and Boston, a possibility that seems increasingly likely. In my mind this would clearly be a good thing, although I see the two routes serving somewhat different purposes. The BRT would be a high-frequency route between stations at mile or half-mile intervals. The T, on the other hand, would serve as a more infrequent route for commuters between the major centers of Providence and Boston (Nickerson brought up a really good counterpoint to this in an email exchange, though, saying that he would recommend the T use smaller but more frequent rolling stock for the route if it got infill stations). I also agree with Nickerson’s assessment that the areas served by BRT are at present fairly unpleasant, but I wonder if that’s a virtue in disguise—offering the possibility of transit-oriented development along these corridors.

I also think, at root, the reason I propose BRT on I-95 is that removing I-95 is one of the few worthy projects that the Northeast could take up that even I don’t see as remotely likely to happen in my lifetime. Having lived for a long time in Philadelphia, I know of a few El stops that pop up between either side of I-95. They’re not pleasant, and though the neighborhoods around these stops (Spring Garden, Girard) are improving, there’s no doubt that the highway’s raised shadow has its way with Philly just as harshly as it does with Providence. But BRT seems like a way to envision some kind of new transportation within the shell of the old. 

An even better example would be Minneapolis' interurban BRT Orange Line, which was added to I-35W as a way for commuters to get in and out of the city. The line uses the exact same configuration of center lane stations with rights of ways that I describe as being needed for a Cranston-Providence-Pawtucket line.

Providence is currently looking at a TIGER grant proposal for the Providence Streetcar, which as yet will have a right of way on only a small portion of its routing, and have a 12-minute peak/20-minute off-peak frequency, making walking a faster option to get from the central business district to either end of the route for many permutations of travel. While I view the streetcar with a lot of ambivalence, I think that it could be improved by greater frequency, and by having the route intersect with other long-distance routes. Some streetcar stops are expected to get public financing for parking garages, something that it’s pretty clear Providence already has far too many (map by GCPVD) of. Even from a drivers’ perspective it makes no sense.The idea that suburbanites will drive into the city most of the way and then jump onto the streetcar for the last leg of their journey seems laughable to me, but I could definitely see a critical mass of Cranstonites (Cranstoners? Cranstonians?) getting on a BRT that pulsed with a last-mile streetcar into downtown. BRT should be developed by combining money for the I-95 expansion with money that has been proposed for the parking garages, in order to add more robust transit options for Rhode Islanders in a central part of the state’s population density. Alongside improvements to downtown short-distance travel by streetcar, and the additional capacity offered by a commuter T, BRT could help to revitalize Rhode Island, with a much better return on investment than this wasteful highway boondoggle.

Rhode Island, a state smaller than some U.S. metro areas, and with a population density the second highest in the country, has much of its population located along an even narrower band on either side of the Narragansett Bay. Its principal cities—Providence, Pawtucket, Newport, Central Falls, and Woonsocket—are no Boston or New York, but they have walkability and density that many places in the country would die for. It’s hard to think of a state in which effective transit and biking would be easier to implement. It’s also hard to think of a state that does more to piss away its advantages on wasteful spending.


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