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Will Providence Regret Keeping a Divisive Urban Highway?

Some cities are replacing freeways with boulevards, but Rhode Island is putting commuters first.

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—On a cold weeknight last month, several dozen residents congregated inside a local school to review the latest plan for one of this city’s busiest local highways. The conversation lasted two hours and reflected a debate taking place in dozens of cities across the nation. As an increasing number of highways reach the end of their design life, city officials are confronted with an important decision: repair or replace? While some cities like Oakland, Calif. and Syracuse, N.Y. have embraced the option of replacement with enthusiasm, others like Providence are reluctant to rip out the infrastructure that has shaped their city for decades.

At the Providence meeting, city officials revealed the future of a highway known as the 6-10 Connector, pointing to several large poster boards arranged around the front of the room. Titled the “Compromise Plan,” it’s an effort to strike a balance between New Urbanist ideals of walkability and neighborhood cohesion—and what Rhode Island’s governor says is an essential emphasis on public safety. The highway will remain a highway, but with a few tweaks: 1.4 miles of new bike lanes, an improved connection between the 6 and the 10, and five new acres of land for development. Officials have estimated that it will cost $400 million to repair the highway over four years, but have not yet released a final budget or construction timeline.

The reception from the community seems mixed. At the meeting, some locals seemed excited about the additions, but raised doubts about budgeting, timeline, and community involvement. In an interview, Seth Zeren, one of the spokesmen for the group Fix the 6-10, raised other concerns. Why spend $400 to fix aged infrastructure that might later prove unsustainable and that encourages high-speed travel? Why were other options not fully vetted? If the highway is unsafe, why has it not been closed? More than anything, he questioned the assumption that the highway must remain a highway. “If you set project constraints that are only achievable by a highway, you’ll only get a highway,” he explained. “Some people think highways are like physics,” he added. “They’re more like sociology….[they’re] a political choice.”

Like many urban freeways, the 6-10 arrived in Providence in the 1950s. It enabled high-speed trips through the city, easier access for commuters, and access for trucks. But it also cut off various neighborhoods from other areas, disrupted the local street grid, and suppressed the economic potential of nearby communities. The conversation about its future has touched on all of these aspects, especially the underlying tension between suburban commuters and city locals. This tension is one that any city opting for replace over repair is prone to experience. In Dallas, for instance, tear-down advocates have met fierce resistance from critics who point out how heavily commuters rely on the highway to get to work.

Every day, there are nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips on the 6-10, causing many to claim the road is essential to the city’s economy. But transportation expert Ian Lockwood says cities should reexamine this assumption. “There comes a point, from a policy perspective, where it makes sense for the community to have regional commuters traveling on [the community’s] terms, and not on some kind of long-distance commute terms,” he told attendees at one of Providence’s public forums.

Focusing on fast commutes to and from the suburbs, he explained in a later interview with TAC, is problematic on three fronts. First, it holds cities back from activating the economic potential in their cores. “Suburbs don’t add value to the city’s core,” he said. “It’s the other way around. The value of the suburbs is created by exporting value from the city.” Second, from a safety perspective, building highways through cities encourages even more high-speed travel. “It’s in [commuters’] self-interest to want to go faster,” Lockwood said. “But…it’s bad public policy. If everyone were to drive fast everywhere, then the city would be dangerous and unpleasant; a classic tragedy-of-the-commons outcome.”

A more urban, locals-centric option for the connector emerged in 2014 when Providence local and transit activist James Kennedy suggested replacing the connector with a multi-modal boulevard. Inspired by what he had seen in his hometown of Philadelphia, where infrastructure enables multi-modal transportation, he and other activists at Move Together Providence presented a vision of a walkable boulevard. As in many cities, the potential benefits of removing the connector were numerous. A boulevard would have unlocked up to 80 acres of land for development, reintegrated several neighborhoods currently divided by the highway, and improved local travel by connecting streets now truncated by the highway.

City residents and even some officials voiced enthusiastic support for the idea. But at a press conference last September, Governor Gina Raimondo steered the conversation back towards repairing the existing road, citing public safety and the need for swift action. “Like so many of the problems which I’ve inherited, if someone had taken action five, 10, 15, 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have such a big, urgent problem now,” she told local press. “I know this is the right thing to do with respect to public safety, and it’s time to make that decision and take action.” Raimondo and (a hesitant) Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza collaborated on a new design and released the current version in December.  

A spokeswoman at Tuesday’s meeting said the plan was designed to improve the lives of people who already live in the highway’s shadow, but tensions between the needs of locals, business interests, and commuters are already emerging.

Gregory Stevens, a local business owner whose shop is less than a mile from the connector, claims that part of the design will actually do more harm than good for the community. He told me that he supports most of the plan except for one part: the closing of an on-ramp not far from his shop. “It’s a huge mistake,” he said. Closing the ramp, he explained, would cut off an entire part of the neighborhood from the highway, disrupt travel patterns, force traffic into the heart of the business district, and possibly prevent future investment. Stevens told me he and other local business owners have hired an engineer to conduct an independent traffic count. He plans to present his protest to the mayor’s office and the city planning department and depending on their response, is prepared to take legal action. He argues the change will create “a catastrophic traffic nightmare.”

Ultimately, Lockwood hopes that all parties will realize that designing transportation around the desires of suburban commuters and drivers is antithetical to the purpose of a city: “Cities were invented to bring people together, to maximize social and economic exchange.” Transportation designers could support that, he said, by emphasizing close proximity over inefficient, high-speed, long-distance highway trips. “If we really want our cities to succeed, then we have to get our fundamentals right: proximity, transit, and most of all, walkability.”

Tiffany Owens, a journalist currently based in Providence, R.I, is a New Yorker at heart.

This article has been updated to correct highway statistics. The 6-10 sees nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips per day, not necessarily commuters.



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