Scrapping earlier plans for a redesign, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) announced on September 7 that it would rebuild the Route 6 and 10 interchange on Providence’s West Side rather than pursuing a redesign of the connecter. To justify their decision, RIDOT cited a lack of funding, the need to keep up with a high volume of traffic, and an urgent need to rebuild the deteriorating highway. Proposed redesigns include a plan popular with local community organizations and businesses to replace overpasses with a surface boulevard that would eliminate physical divisions between nearby neighborhoods and allow for improved pedestrian, bicycle, and bus traffic.
In spite of this announcement, Mayor Jorge Elorza plans to continue holding public forums on the 6-10 Connector, making the future of the connector and the possibility of a redesign unclear. Whether or not RIDOT will be swayed by the new designs Mayor Elorza plans to unveil is uncertain, but the opposition between the city and state governments underscores a disconnect between what local officials and citizens feel is best for their communities, and what the state government is willing to invest in. Since highways in the northeast typically last about 30 to 50 years before needing reconstruction, it could be decades before there is another chance to redesign the 6-10 Connector.
When she announced RIDOT’s reconstruction plans, Governor Gina Raimondo justified the decision with the seriousness of the Connector’s structural issues, stating, “I wish we had time and these bridges were in better shape. We don’t have the luxury of time.” Seven of the 6-10 Connector’s nine bridges have been rated structurally deficient by RIDOT, with the Huntington Viaduct crossing Troy and Westminster Streets and the Amtrak rail lines having the highest priorities for reconstruction. However, possible measures such as placing weight restrictions that would eliminate trucks or other large vehicles from the bridges have not been taken to curb the worsening of structural deficiencies and prevent accidents. The lack of such measures casts into doubt both whether the bridges are currently incapable of handling the current traffic volume and, if they are, whether the state is taking proper precautions to keep drivers on the highway safe.
The highway’s current layout, a system of overpasses connecting Route 6 and Route 10, has been criticized by community leaders as a poor design that artificially separates neighborhoods on the West Side from one another and prevents pedestrian and bicycle access to these neighborhoods, contributing to their economic stagnation as well as discouraging more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation. Public support for the surface boulevard plan at an August 30 workshop (one of several held over the past few months) on potential redesigns was enthusiastic, but the potential cost of such a plan has not yet been determined. An earlier proposal estimated a $595 million budget would be necessary to cover the highway with an “earthen cap” and build streets and parks on top of it—similar to Boston’s Big Dig, which rerouted I-93 and covered its former footprint with the Rose Kennedy Greenway—became unfeasible when the state government learned in August that it would not be receiving a $175 million federal grant. Though RIDOT has announced it will go through with a reconstruction without a redesign, costing $400 million, there are continuing efforts to make RIDOT reconsider its move. According to Mayor Jorge Elorza, city planners will reveal two new redesign plans, along with their estimated costs, at a public forum on Monday, October 3. Whether anything will come of Mayor Elorza’s efforts is unclear.
Though budget concerns were among the reasons that RIDOT scrapped a redesign, Fix the 6-10—a coalition of local organizations and businesses—claims that a surface boulevard redesign would cost less in both the short and long term: maintaining a highway imposes a heavy tax burden, while the redesign would generate property taxes from business owners and facilitate economic revitalization. According to Fix the 6-10’s website, the coalition is pushing for “a replacement to the crumbling 6-10 Connector that is innovative and shows we’re ready for the 21st century.” The group argues that the construction of highways in cities is outdated, expensive, and bad for the environment. Fix the 6-10 points to successful moves to convert large highways into usable land, including Milwaukee, WI, where a freeway was replaced with a boulevard, leading to a massive increase in real estate investment; and Seoul, South Korea, where a freeway was replaced with a scenic park.
Speaking to the College Hill Independent, Seth Zeren, a spokesman for Fix the 6-10, characterized the highway’s design as a relic of 1960s urban planning, which frequently disregarded the harmful effects of infrastructure on surrounding neighborhoods. Olneyville in particular is severely isolated from the rest of the city by highways and overpasses which surround the neighborhood on three sides, making access on foot or bike between Olneyville and nearby neighborhoods like the West End unappealing and extremely difficult. “No one likes to live next to a highway—imagine if we tried to build a highway through the East Side,” Zeren says. “The West Side is poorer and browner, so we’re just cramming highways into poor neighborhoods again. It’s left Olneyville gutted, and much harder and less pleasant to get to.” Zeren also noted that the highways leave the neighborhood choked with traffic headed elsewhere that doesn’t support local businesses and leads to poor air quality. “There’s actually a missing connection from 10 North to 6 West, meaning you must drive through Olneyville Square, and that means at times Olneyville Square is crushed with cars. And they’re all trying to get to Johnston, it’s not traffic that wants to go to Olneyville,” says Zeren.
Since this traffic from the highway includes cars along with diesel-burning trucks, the highway’s presence also contributes to public health issues for the area. Data published by the Rhode Island Department of Health in 2014 shows that cases of asthma among children are most concentrated on the West Side in neighborhoods close to the 6-10, including Olneyville, where 8–10% of children ages two to 17 have asthma. In northern Federal Hill, also near the highway, rates of asthma among children range as high as 10.4–15.4%. Rates in the majority of the East Side are 4.4% or less.
The rebuilding of the highway also contradicts the state’s own environmental goals. In 2014, the Resilient Rhode Island Act was passed, which set an ambitious goal of 85% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. The presence of a highway cutting through the West Side discourages pedestrian and bicycle traffic between neighborhoods, particularly in Olneyville. “If you live in Olneyville, you have to have a car to get to work,” Zeren told the Indy. If the state hopes to reduce carbon emissions significantly, it will need to find ways to make use of other modes of transportation possible for residents, which the 6-10 Connector’s hulking overpasses actively discourage.
The 6-10 Connector was built at a time when Olneyville was already in economic decline. Once a major industrial hub of Providence, factories began to move away from Olneyville or shut down entirely after World War II, taking employment opportunities away from the neighborhood. Even the website of Providence’s city government points out how the construction of the 6-10 contributed to this decline, stating that the rapid flight of residents from Olneyville at the time “was exacerbated by the construction of the Route 6 connector in the early 1950s. Built to alleviate the traffic snarls in Olneyville Square, the Route 6 connector had the effect of destroying a great deal of affordable, working-class housing.”
As cities across the country move to replace highways with streets and greenspace, and encourage alternative modes of transportation, RIDOT’s decision to keep the 6-10 in its current form entrenches a style of urban planning that is becoming increasingly outdated, one that has both created and worsened poor economic situations in Providence’s neighborhoods. RIDOT’s defiance of the city government in choosing the highway’s location makes its decision all the more bizarre. That the bridges, even with their structural problems, continue to function smoothly at present without posted weight restrictions, suggests that it’s a reluctance to consider alternative ways of handling traffic in Providence, rather than the need for a quick solution, that is driving this decision. The 6-10 Connector’s redesign provides an opportunity to improve the lives of the West Side’s residents. Mayor Elorza’s upcoming unveiling of new designs means RIDOT could still consider taking this opportunity.
JANE ARGODALE B’18 doesn’t even have a learner’s permit yet.