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A RIDOT Compromise

Officials at RIDOT have recently reached out to ask me to participate in a meeting to forge a compromise on the 6/10 Connector. From talking to other people who are interested in this, I've gathered that this was a fairly broad invitation to a lot of people, though I'm not clear just how many yet.

I feel like the effort at dialogue is a welcome one, but I'm very wary. The governor has not signaled her openness to any meaningful compromise on this issue, and I would like to avoid having my presence at RIDOT headquarters serve to formalize the state government's decision to completely ignore the needs of the City of Providence. So here I'm outlining what my demands are of the governor's office and RIDOT.

You probably know that the governor recently unilaterally decided to rebuild the 6/10 Connector as-is. Nominally there is a process for discussion on this, but in the governor's words, we're supposed to "wrap it up" in sixty days, after which presumably the Connector will be rebuilt as the governor sees fit. Gov. Raimondo did wobble a bit in public questioning days after her initial announcement, seeming to indicate that she would be open to any plan that was safe, affordable, and practical. She then recanted on that position. If we're going to participate in public meetings, it's not to legitimize that kind of arbitrary power. The governor needs to put all options back on the table.

The main strength I think we have is to articulate what our position is publicly, and call on the public to back that position. Assuming that there's any inherent integrity to "the process" is naive. There is no integrity, except that which is pushed unwillingly on public officials.

Here is what RIDOT must do if it's going to "compromise":

We all agree that the public should not be left at risk from unsafe bridges. If the Huntington Bridge is unsafe, it should be closed to trucks, and if necessary, to cars. Oddly, the bridges remain open to cars and trucks, and given the governor's past record of conveniently finding unsafe bridges in the right place at the right time for her policy goals, it leaves the public suspicious. To be clear, I don't think the suspicion should be about whether the bridges are in good condition or not. The suspicion is that concerns about safety are being manipulated in order to derail public opposition to the governor's positions. 

We shouldn't fear shutting down bridges, because we understand that traffic is able to accommodate tremendous losses of capacity and function just fine. In fact, that's the basis for the first highway removals. Highways collapsed, and then there was surprisingly not much of a problem. It happened in New York with the West Side Highway. It happened when four highways fell at once in San Francisco (two were ultimately removed). It happened in a more orderly way when Seoul, South Korea removed fifteen highways and replaced some of them with mere rivers. The most famous, Cheongyecheon, was based on Waterplace Park. It carried 60% more vehicles than the 6/10 Connector, but the South Koreans saw fit not only to remove it, but to replace it with nothing but a natural reclamation.

Cheongycheon, based on Waterplace Park, removed a highway that had carried 160,000 vehicles. RIDOT estimates the 6/10 Connector at around 90,000 to 100,000 vehicles. Some side streets were left parallel to the river, but nothing at all like a large road of any kind.

If RIDOT deems it inappropriate to shut the bridges down, it should use temporary braces to maintain their safety. RIDOT Director Alviti and Governor Raimondo have stated on numerous occasions that it doesn't make sense to put temporary braces that cost $5-$6 million on bridges in order to tide the problem along. This is really clever rhetoric, but doesn't actually make any sense. The amount of money we're looking at spending on the 6/10 Connector is anywhere between $600 million to $1 billion dollars if the highway is rebuilt as-is. Our best guesses about how much the boulevard model could save are in the order of magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars. So saving $5-6 million in order to assure that we can spend several hundred million extra on a project of dubious value is not smart.

The public has favored the boulevard through the process. There have been rumblings of dissent from some quarters, but one should read between the lines of that dissent to see where it comes from. The Projo, for instance, recently ran an editorial praising the governor for her "smart decisions" on the 6/10 bridges. The editorial reads like, and probably is, a press release, and it gets a lot of the basic facts wrong. It says the governor is smart for saving money, since the surface boulevard is clearly more expensive (not true: see comments from RIDOT Dep. Director Peter Garino here). It also conflates the surface boulevard and the highway cap, which are two totally different plans. You can even look to sources like the comments section of the Projo for further evidence of this: some people do comment that they'd like the highway rebuilt as-is, but those people always cite cost. People who don't follow the process closely have, like the Projo, gotten confused about what the highway cap is and how it differs from the boulevard, and so they assume the boulevard is more expensive. It doesn't do justice to these people's point of view to build the highway either, since what they're stating is that they'd like the cheapest option. (It's also, by the way, quite clear that a boulevard would best serve the needs of drivers, whether or not that point is realized by suburban mayors).

I'm in favor of completing the public process instead of fast-tracking anything, but I think that if there is a fast-track, that Providence Planning should be the decider of what that is. The governor held a press conference with four mayors, two of which people whose towns don't have the 6/10 Connector (Mayors Lombardi and Avedisian of North Providence and Warwick, respectively), and one of whom was a mayor of a town where Route 6 W exists, but where no changes are proposed within the town's borders (Mayor Polisena of Johnston). Providence is the only municipality that is actually affected by the 6/10 Connector, and it is the only municipality that has any right to make a decision on it. Having the mayors of Warwick and North Providence join the press conference was clearly a power-play by the governor, and if she doesn't back off from these kinds of power-plays, she shouldn't expect a second term of office.

Bottom line: any proposal that rebuilds the highway over the wishes of Providence is not a compromise. A compromise is when everyone at the table gives and takes something to get where they need to be. The boulevard itself is a compromise, because what would serve Providence best is to build nothing. The boulevard is a way to accommodate the interests of people who wish to have a large road, while also meeting the needs of neighbors who wish there was none. The governor must support the public process.



  1. It is a scandal that RIDOT is trying to do this "compromise" behind closed doors. This absolutely needs to be done in full view of the interested public.

    1. Agree!

      Check out Eco RI's recent coverage to see just how scandalous this really is. http://www.ecori.org/transportation/2016/9/10/governor-ridot-flip-flop-on-6-10-connector

  2. I don't know if this counts as a compromise, or something that would be workable to buy time, but I've been thinking would make sense to connect route 6E to route 10S -- that is if you were driving on 6 east, the highway would turn south onto route 10, with an exit ramp onto the boulevard. This pretty much would lock in the southern part of route 10, which I'm sure you would prefer not to do, but it would avoid dumping all incoming route 6 traffic into a rotary (or light, or whatever), and encourage people to go around Providence rather than through it.

    1. What's a compromise about it is a few things:

      1. I said this above, but it bears repeating: a lot of people who say "just rebuild the bridges" are speaking shorthand for "don't do any fancy stuff." To the extent that some people feel that the boulevard will be more expensive because they can see it's clearly nicer, they object on the basis of price. I would argue that it's not carrying out the wishes of those critics if you build the most expensive thing.

      2. I think the most important thing is to KEEP TALKING. This false sense of emergency we have is based in the notion that it would be too expensive to put temporary supports on the bridge, or too cumbersome to traffic to close it. Neither is true. If other changes to the proposal need to come along, the most meaningful way to have the process happen is to continue discussion.

      3. I think it's really worth restating that the boulevard is in many ways not what urbanists would want in an ideal world. I grew up in the Philly area, and the Ben Franklin Parkway is far from the most ideal version of urbanism in Philly, but if I had to choose between the BF Parkway and an urban highway, it's very clear to me that I would choose the former. What RIDOT is trying to do is get everything it wants without compromising, and that's not going to happen.