Strong Towns member, James Kennedy, is working with an organization called Moving Together Providence, to help transform a Rhode Island highway into a safer, more walkable and transit-friendly boulevard. Today he's sharing an introduction to that project.

In light of Strong Towns’ recent #NoNewRoads week, Rhode Island advocates would like to share a project to remove a harmful highway from Providence and replace it with a boulevard.

The 6/10 Connector was completed in pieces, but the oldest parts of it date from the 1940s. The Connector destroyed the fabric of Olneyville, which at one point was described as Providence’s “Second Downtown”. The 6/10 Boulevard is an opportunity to rethink the errors of the past, while saving the state of Rhode Island a lot of money.

Currently a six lane highway running like a loop off of I-95, the 6/10 Connector goes from Capitol Center through Smith Hill, Federal Hill, Valley, Olneyville, Manton, the West End, Silver Lake, the Upper South Side and Lower South Side, ending back at I-95 in the suburb of Cranston. These are working class and middle class neighborhoods with walkable bones, and the highway goes against its name and disconnects them from one another, ensuring more driving. Many businesses in the poorer neighborhoods of Providence rank high on the per-acre value scale that Joe Minicozzi's Urban Three developed, but the design flaws imposed on the neighborhoods by decades of RIDOT mistakes do not allow those advantages to show.

Governor Gina Raimondo’s signature proposal has been RhodeWorks, by which the state intends to pay for road rebuilds through truck tolls. While the truck tolls are an equitable way to pay for roads—trucks do 10,000 times as much damage as cars—the 6/10 Connector plays an outsized role in the spending associated with RhodeWorks. Depending upon how the figure is crunched, the Connector would pull between 50-80% of statewide toll revenue to repair far less than 1% of state-controlled infrastructure. Olneyville, at the center of the Connector, is poor, and has a car ownership rate just over 50%. One of the arguments boulevard advocates have made is that replacing 6/10 as a boulevard instead of a highway would allow bridge lengths to be reduced by 80% or more, allowing for toll savings. The boulevard would also remove on- and off-ramps from those neighborhoods, allowing for seventy acres of new development land along the Woonasquatucket River. These arguments have convinced some Rhode Island Republicans and many of the state's leading progressives to call for a boulevard on the 6/10 corridor.

Providence’s mayor, Jorge Elorza, has made biking a symbol of his new administration. Starting from his house in Silver Lake at the far western edge of the city, he rides two-and-a-half miles to City Hall each day, crossing the Connector twice, and then crossing I-95. Providence is #8 in the U.S. for lane-miles of highway per capita, an ignoble distinction it shares with no other Northeastern cities, and the mayor’s trip reflects that each day.

The mayor’s administration recently added a 6/10 Boulevard proposal to the “TIP” or Transportation Improvement Plan, for the state. This marks a new milestone in a journey from the boulevard being a wild pipe dream to a proposal that seems likely to happen. Ominously, another version of the project—a complete rebuild of the highway—still is on the TIP. Advocates from Moving Together Providence are working to make sure the boulevard is built and that it does not become a stroad.

Moving Together Providence calls for two lanes of car traffic at 10 ½ feet, two bus-rapid transit lanes with half-mile station spacings, and a bike path that would connect Downcity Providence to two existing bike paths: the Washington Secondary and the Woonasquatucket. 20% of Rhode Island's population lives in Providence, and 50% of the state lives within five miles of City Hall, so these transit, walking, and biking investments would be tremendously productive, and altogether would cost less than rebuilding the highway. At the eastern edge of the 6/10 Boulevard, Providence's MBTA/Amtrak station is already one of the busiest in the country, and Olneyville itself could get an infill MBTA station along existing tracks.

The ball is in RIDOT's court. Any RIDOT decision still carries tension, because state departments of transportation are never fully transparent institutions. Still, if ever there was a time when this type of project might happen, now is it. The Director of RIDOT, Peter Alviti, grew up being able to walk from Silver Lake to Olneyville, a trip that today would only be for the truly adventurous of spirit. Deputy Director Peter Garino is an import to Rhode Island from New Jersey Transit. While Moving Together Providence remains cautiously optimistic, we hope that Strong Towns readers--especially Rhode Island ones--will not take the outcome as granted. 

Keep your fingers crossed for us, Strong Towners. Rhode Island wants its 30 x 40 mile space to be as strong as we can make it, and the 6/10 Boulevard should top the list of improvements.

(All images created by Moving Together PVD)

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About the Author

James Kennedy and his collaborators Jonathan Harris and Arthur Eddy form Moving Together Providence. Moving Together PVD advocates for the transformation of the 6/10 Connector into an boulevard to reconnect local streets; augment existing MBTA rail infrastructure; add bus rapid transit, biking, and walking options--all while reducing transportation waste and putting seventy acres of land back on the tax rolls. You can follow the Moving Together Twitter at @movetogetherpvd.