by James Kennedy
RIDOT has dubbed its proposal for a 6/10 Connector Big Dig a “highway-boulevard hybrid”, but the 6/10 Dig is sharply at odds with the Moving Together Providence proposal for a genuine 6/10 Boulevard. Like the “cooler and warmer” scandal that has captured the public’s attention and revulsion, highway-boulevard hybrid is state-government-speak for nonsense. But the mistakes embedded in RIDOT’s 6/10 approach are orders of magnitude more expensive than the $4.5 million Reykjavik excursion, and its failure will stay with us for decades.
It’s pretty obvious why the 6/10 Connector has segregated Silver Lake, Olneyville, and the West End from each other, and not hard to understand how it made Providence’s “second downtown” its poorest neighborhood. Less obvious, but vital, is for suburbanites to understand how RIDOT’s policy fails them, and to join in a statewide movement for a genuine boulevard.
Urban highways funnel traffic and collect it into a few chokepoints, instead of allowing it to disperse naturally. Olneyville has next to no job centers that would draw outsiders, and the neighborhood itself is almost 50% car-free. But 11:30 on a Wednesday in Olneyville Square feels like let-out time for the Newport Jazz Festival. How can a place with so little economic activity and driving be so congested?
The answer is the Connector itself, that might as well be called the Disconnector. While in theory it speeds up traffic along its corridor, its limited-access ramp system also cuts off the smaller streets that could grid together traffic. That means that local and through traffic is pushed together, and since traffic is non-linear in nature, even a smaller push in that direction can be the tipping point that stops everything. Of course, in addition, the Connector itself also becomes congested at rush hours, when it’s actually needed, and fails commuters trying to somewhere quickly.
Imagine the urban highway approach applied to one of the state’s most job-heavy neighborhoods: the East Side. There’s no doubt that affluent university staff are able to afford cars and often drive to work. Yet the traffic is absorbed in a grid of mostly small, two-lane streets. Between Main and Butler, fifteen two lane streets add up to thirty lanes of traffic. East Providence commuters might cheer an Angell Street Expressway if RIDOT proposed one, but they would find over time that the proposal would make their commute worse. The RIDOT 6/10 approach, if brought to Angell Street, would tie up traffic by blocking that grid with a limited-access freeway. It would also require sacrificing our most productive places for additional on- and off-ramp space. The disaster it would create would seem to justify the expense, as people who sat in the new traffic would never grasp that the highway itself caused their misery. The reason this tragedy never befell the East Side was because its residents were well enough connected to fight it, but Olneyville too deserves fair treatment.
Doesn’t decking the highway make things nicer? Yes, but only in a very limited location, and at very great expense. It precludes improving the whole corridor, and puts us on the hook for long-term debt, without the benefits of development or traffic mitigation.
A surface boulevard– not 6/10 Dig, but the Moving Together community vision–allows bridges to be shortened to cross just the Amtrak corridor, allowing for more numerous bridge connections to re-weave the grid. In opens up 70 acres of development that the RIDOT plan leaves tied up in on- and off-ramps. It prevents the state from needing to deck a highway, which would be an expensive liability. A boulevard will reawaken our city just as Waterplace Park did, but by lowering rather than adding costs.
We call on Gov. Raimondo to trash the RIDOT highway-boulevard “hybrid” and build a real boulevard, before 6/10 Dig becomes the next Icelandic embarrassment. 6/10 Dig doesn’t create the warmth of community, and it’s certainly not cool.
James Kennedy is part of the group Moving Together Providence. You can follow him on Twitter at @transportpvd.