Route 6/10: Losing the Dream?

Above (left to right): Providence City Planner Bonnie Nickerson, transportation engineer Ian Lockwood, transportation advocate Veronica Vanterpool, urban planner Peter Park, and RIDOT Director Peter Alviti.

The City of Providence's forum on the future of the 6/10 Connector on March 23 drew several hundred people. The atmosphere of the steamy packed room was palpable attentiveness. We were there to hear transportation experts Peter Park, Veronica Vanterpool, and Ian Lockwood share ideas about urban highway redesign and to learn about what could be possible for our city in terms of the much-needed rebuilding of the 6/10 Connector, which devastated west side neighborhoods in Providence such as Olneyville, Silver Lake, and Valley over 50 years ago when it was built.

Mayor Elorza's three distinguished guests presented images and accounts of major transportation redesign projects including San Francisco's Embarcadero, Milwaukee's Park East Freeway and New York's West Side Highway. These huge, completed infrastructure redevelopment projects had common elements at the center of their design – the well-being of people and communities, traffic mitigation, the health of cities, and economic development – and they all involved removing a highway and replacing it with a boulevard option.

These highway-to-boulevard conversions are well documented for their success (see selections of completed and in-process highway-to-boulevard projects in Resources below) and had none of the traffic debacles that were predicted by project naysayers. What's more, the removal of highways that, half a century before, had been forced through disenfranchised communities began to reverse the effects of these social injustices by reconnecting isolated and economically desolate communities (made so by highway placement) to the rest of the city.

We started to dream. The will for a radical transformation of the highway seemed to be shared by host Mayor Elorza and the majority of stakeholders and local leaders that attended the meeting, as evidenced by the content of invited expert testimony, audience responses and Q&A comments.

For some of us, it was the first time envisioning the 6-10 Connector as anything other than a highway. It was a revelation to learn about the sea change in urban planning and transportation design that is supporting the replacement of highways with at-grade boulevards across the country. The opportunity inherent in boulevard conversions to reconnect neighborhoods, increase walkability and alternative forms of transit, create new openings for land use and redevelopment, and decrease traffic due to an increased number of access points into the city are powerful.

After Park, Vanterpool and Lockwood spoke, RI Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti presented a proposal for the 6-10 Connector that involved burying the highway in a tunnel-like enclosure and building green space on top. He called this approach a boulevard "hybrid," and showed renderings of what this alternative might look like.

But Alviti's enclosure or cap was nothing like the at-grade boulevard alternatives discussed by the previous three speakers. In fact, the "capping" or covering of an existing highway as a design approach – used by the Big Dig in Boston – had been specifically cited by transportation engineer Ian Lockwood in his presentation as an insufficient and incomplete solution to urban highway redevelopment in that it does little to mitigate the traffic issues of city highways.

The room began to feel uneasy and definitely less dreamy. Although Director Alviti genuinely seemed open to alternative approaches to rebuilding 6/10, the ideas he vocalized that night consisted of replacing a broken highway with a new highway – albeit with a dome on it – that would presumably retain all the inherent traffic problems, bottlenecks and lack of connectivity that exist today with our current highway.

The room's uneasiness became loud and clear during the Q&A period following speaker presentations. Mayor Elorza himself stepped in to interrupt a run of audience members drilling down on Alviti.

Perhaps to calm the room, a city official suggested to meeting attendees that this was the start of a public conversation. To be sure (and to the city's credit), the Mayor's forum had been the first and only public meeting held about the 6-10 Connector reconstruction project in recent history. No matter what the will and progressive intentions of city officials are, however, the process, planning and funding of the 6-10 Connector project remain primarily in the hands of RIDOT and state leaders. And unfortunately, the state's inclusion of community input in the planning process has been deficient so far.

To this point, WBNA and other community groups became aware this week that the RI Department of Transportation is submitting a federal grant proposal for the 6-10 reconstruction project on April 14, 2016, that consists of the capped highway plan presented at the city's forum. Rather than this proposed highway cap being the start of a conversation, it is currently being submitted as the plan to the federal government and could become the premise on which funding is awarded (it is unclear if grant guidelines would allow a state to modify its plans after being awarded funding).

In addition, on April 6, merely 8 days before the grant proposal is due, RIDOT announced four public meetings to be held in Johnston, Warwick, Olneyville and Cranston. Scheduling forums at this late date leaves little time to consider public input or to incorporate it into the grant application in a meaningful way. A “public process” conducted in this manner is deeply flawed, at best.

In a recent letter to Governor Gina Raimondo, the WBNA expressed its lack of support for RIDOT's proposal of a capped highway and admonished the state for its poor attempts at including community stakeholders in a public process. The letter also contained a request that the Governor direct RIDOT to include language in the proposal that would leave open the option for alternatives.

WBNA seeks to engage in a genuine public process with the state that includes citizens of the most-impacted neighborhoods surrounding the highway (Olneyville, West End, Federal Hill, Silver Lake and Valley), other community and advocacy groups, and the City of Providence, and that would impact the design of a reconstructed 6-10 Connector.

We also encourage Governor Raimondo, Director Alviti and RIDOT to align with the initiatives of U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to refocus transportation redevelopment projects on serving the most disenfranchised communities living alongside highways instead of prioritizing those who merely pass through our cities.

WBNA looks forward to pursuing a model of collaboration similar to that used in creating a proposal for the redevelopment of the Bronx's Sheridan Expressway. Through an intentional planning process that includes city planners and designers, community groups as well as state and city leaders, we can produce the best and most beneficial design solution for the 6-10 Connector that serves all Rhode Islanders.


Presentations from the March 23 Forum
Presentations available here by Peter Park, Veronica Vanterpool, Ian Lockwood, Martina Haggerty and RIDOT Director Peter Alviti.

Selected highway-to-boulevard conversions (in process):
Route 34 East, New Haven, CT
McGrath Highway, Boston, MA
Sheridan Expressway, the Bronx, NY

Selected highway-to-boulevard conversions (completed):
Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA
Octavia Boulevard, San Francisco, CA
West Side Highway, New York City, NY
Park East Freeway, Milwaukee, WI

Related article about U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx:
A crusade to defeat the legacy of highways rammed through poor neighborhoods, The Washington Post

Selected news articles about the city's March 23 meeting:
RI DOT: Remaking 6/10 Connector As Boulevard Hybrid Offers The Most Public Benefit, RIPR
Rhode Island's Boulevard of Broken Dreams, ecoRI News
Green Gateway: Plan would cover and create a park atop Route 10 in Providence, Providence Journal
DOT's Route 10 'tunnel' plan draws praise, Providence Journal