Two years ago, when Philly expat and Transport Providence blogger James Kennedy wrote an article on ecoRI.org about architect Arthur Eddy's design to turn the 6-10 connector into a boulevard, it seemed like a far-fetched idea, regardless of its merits.
One year ago, when Governor Raimondo's Rhode Works plan allocated about $500 million dollars to rebuild the highway, the penny started to drop in more people's imaginations about other things that could be done with that land and that much money.
At the standing-room only meeting on March 23, 2016, hosted by Mayor Elorza and the American Planning Association of Rhode Island to discuss "the future of the 6-10 connector," it was clear that Providence's political establishment has fully appreciated that in this age of austerity it will be a very long time until another project comes along with a guaranteed budget well into nine digits.
The 6-10 connector may be a transport project but it is also an opportunity to improve the neighborhoods surrounding the highway, and it will be a legacy builder, or buster, for everyone connected through city and state government.
To be clear, the "6-10 connector" is the highway (currently) which runs from the junction of Rhode Island Routes 6 and 10 to I-95 in the center of Providence.
The point of view of the "community conversation" was clear. Director of Planning and Development Bonnie Nickerson introduced the evening calling for plans that "create value in these neighborhoods" and pointing out that removing the highway could free 62 acres for development, spur redevelopment of 43 acres in Silver Lake adjacent to the current junction of Routes 6 and 10, and, foreshadowing the concluding talk of the evening, perhaps 26 acres above the current highway.
The first guest speaker was former planning director for Milwaukee and Denver, Peter Park. His premise was simple: "Remove a highway, improve a city." Citing examples from his work in Milwuakee, Denver, and around the world, a strong underlying theme was "This isn't a theory. It is real."
Next was Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and chair of the Bronx River Alliance. Essentially, she described how the community organizations she works with successfully fought the New York State's Department of Transportation to stop and begin to roll back highway construction in the South Bronx.
The third invited expert was Ian Lockwood, a transportation engineer and regional director for Toole Design Group. Like Park, the title of his talk went straight to the point: "Highway teardowns." Lockwood argued forcefully that urban highways were always a mistake. A failed idealistic experiment on a massive scale. Given the state of American cities, and the apparent health of highway-free cities in Europe, it is a straightforward case to make, backed up a growing list of successful removal projects.
One important moment occurred when Lockwood reviewed various types of highway removals. One option he listed is "tunnel or cap," which triggered a reference to the Big Dig. Lockwood pointed out that in Boston "there are several blocks that are really nice" but then the highway pops right back up. When he got to "redundant section removal" he regarded that as clearly applicable to the 6-10.
The final speaker of the night, not listed on the original program, was Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) Director Peter Alviti. He admitted to feeling "a little out of sorts" after the preceding anti-highway barrage, and reminded the audience that he was coming "from a place called the Department of Transportation."
Alviti, who had held a press conference earlier in the evening, presented some tentative plans from RIDOT for a revised connector, featuring what he referred to as a "boulevard" or "boulevard hybrid" which was not a boulevard at all, but a partial capping of the highway, from the junction between 6 and 10 for several blocks past Westminster Street and Broadway. You can see Alviti's presentation here. It is, in effect, a tunnel, but given the existing elevation, the tunnel sections would be installed at ground level and filled in, creating a smooth grade from the West End down to Olneyville and Silver Lake.
RIDOT's current estimate is that this capped highway would have roughly the same cost as the more standard above ground version, which might seem unrealistic until you look at the number of overpasses involved once another set of two lane viaducts are added for an anticipated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. It's a triple decker spaghetti mess. If anything the tunnel looks simpler and cheaper, and makes sense given the existing differences in grade. It is hard to deny that boulevard advocacy has at least pushed RIDOT to come up with an improved highway plan that raises interesting possibilities for development linking the thriving West End and struggling but vibrant Olneyville.
Nonetheless, it is not a boulevard, or as drawn even a hybrid. Just a partially buried highway. In the short term, Alviti won the news cycle, as reporting on the event focused on his proposal rather than the city's carefully prepared anti-highway agenda, and the immediate reaction mostly ranged between grudgingly and enthusiastically approving.
At this point the process has been taken over by a need to apply for a new federal grant program called FASTLANE which prioritizes projects that "strengthen communities through neighborhood redevelopment; mitigate negative impact of freight movements on communities … particularly for
disadvantaged groups." The application is due April 14 and RIDOT expects to request $100 million dollars from the $800 million available nationwide.
Obviously, there is not going to be much time for public discussion between now and then. Nothing obliterates common sense or deliberative processes like the lure of an enormous pile of federal money. RIDOT will be starting further design and engineering work this summer while waiting for the FASTLANE grant results in the fall. Expect this to remain a hot topic for years to come.