Boulevard Dreams

Cities and states have very different ideas for fixing decrepit urban highways.
December 2016
The 6/10 connector runs through Providence and its suburbs. (Rhode Island Department of Transportation)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

The issue carrying the most emotional freight in Rhode Island these days isn’t the scarcity of good jobs or the state’s fragile finances, important as those things are. The issue that resonates emotionally is the 6/10 connector.

The 6/10 is a two-mile stretch of multi-lane highway that connects a pair of interstates running through Providence and its suburbs. It carries 97,000 cars every day. Nobody likes it, and there’s no reason why anybody would. It’s a series of 11 decrepit bridges held up with ugly wooden and metal braces and buttresses. Nine of the bridges are more than 50 years old; seven of them have been labelled structurally deficient. The state, which owns the 6/10, has been talking about how to replace it for the past three decades.

The connector is not only obsolete, it’s also a living insult to the neighborhood of Olneyville, which it bisects. In the 1950s and 1960s, Olneyville was a thriving commercial district, sometimes referred to as Providence’s second downtown. Once the highway came in, though, Olneyville went into severe decline, ending up as a sterile and forbidding place where very few people wanted to live. Today, it has the lowest property values in the entire city.

For all these reasons, it’s been an unchallenged assumption for years that the 6/10 problem needed drastic action. Finally, last year, the legislature freed up several hundred million dollars to do the job. The question was what to do.

Early this year, city and state elected officials and transportation planners began to talk about how they might go beyond just fixing the 6/10 and design something that might knit back together the urban fabric that the connector essentially destroyed. Perhaps a wide boulevard with two lanes in each direction for traffic, but maybe also a little green space, a bus rapid transit corridor and amenities for pedestrians. It was a heady few months for everyone in Providence with an interest in the urban future.

Then, in early September, Gov. Gina Raimondo brought the process to a sudden end. There weren’t going to be any New Urbanist experiments for the 6/10. It was dangerous. Ugly and dysfunctional as it might be, it needed to be replaced as is. “I wish we had time and these bridges were in better shape,” the governor said. “We don’t have the luxury of time. … We are going to move without further delay, without further discussion.”

Providence’s situation is unusual in some ways, but it foreshadows arguments that are going to be coming up in cities all over the country. Just about the only thing the two major parties agreed upon in the campaigns this fall was the need to spend a lot more money -- hundreds of billions more -- on the nation’s transportation infrastructure, both to create jobs and to replace roads and bridges that badly need an overhaul.

This is happening at a moment when the original hardware of the interstate highway system, much of it more than 50 years old, is reaching a critical stage of disrepair and/or congestion. A good number of cities are in the middle of long-running debates not too different from the one taking place now in Providence.

It’s possible to work out a rough scenario for how most of these confrontations are going to proceed: Mayors and city planning departments, convinced that old, unsightly and poorly located highways are holding back local economic development, will push for their demolition and replacement with grade-level thoroughfares that put aesthetics at least on par with the rapid movement of cars. Meanwhile, state transportation departments, dubious about speculative visions of urban revival, will push for simple road reconstruction that accommodates the largest possible volume of traffic. The state will have powerful lobbying help from construction companies and labor unions, which see more jobs in replacing highways than in demolishing them, and from suburban commuters concerned that the demolition of a major highway will leave them gridlocked on increasingly busy neighborhood streets.

The states will win most of these battles. They own most of the highways, as Rhode Island does in Providence, and they control nearly all the levers of funding. But before they start digging, states will throw mayors and urban planners a bone or two, adding small pockets of parkland and other green amenities that will make the rebuilt highways a little less unsightly.

This is the way things seem to be playing out in Arkansas. There, the issue is a six-mile stretch of Interstate 30 running through the heart of both Little Rock and North Little Rock and across the Arkansas River. It carries 125,000 vehicles a day, is more than 50 years old and has been declared structurally deficient. The state transportation department wants to renovate the road and widen it from six lanes to 10, arguing that it will otherwise become intolerably congested in the years ahead. Planners in Little Rock question the need for 10 lanes. They have suggested that local residents might be better served by a boulevard that could still allow for substantial traffic while providing a primary recreation space for a city whose population will soon exceed 200,000.

The two sides are still negotiating, but the city has essentially agreed to drop its initial objections and let the state widen I-30 by two lanes in each direction. In return, the state would eliminate one of the highway interchanges, making room for a park, and add what it is touting as “boulevard-like” features that may include wide, tree-lined sidewalks.

Syracuse, N.Y., is confronting a similar decision about an urban portion of Interstate 81, a road in such poor repair that it needs to be either demolished or rebuilt within a relatively short time. City planners have been seeing boulevard visions for more than a decade, but the state highway department has been pushing for a reconstruction, and may get it. Still, Gov. Andrew Cuomo surprised some of his own transportation bureaucrats in August when he declared I-81 in Syracuse to be a “classic planning blunder” and implied that he might be open to a new round of creative ideas, perhaps including the highway’s demolition.

What’s a little different about the drama in Providence is that for a brief time the urbanists appeared to be winning the battle. This spring, Rhode Island’s state transportation director, Peter Alviti Jr., declared that the replacement of the 6/10 connector was “a singular opportunity, something that comes along once in a lifetime. We can take a vital piece of land and redesign it into something that suits the needs of all stakeholders.”

As for simply rebuilding the highway, Alviti called that “really, no plan” at all. But the state didn’t exactly buy the idea of turning the 6/10 into a leafy boulevard, either. It instead came up with an intriguing hybrid proposal: Replace the road with a tunnel and cover the tunnel with a large green canopy that could accommodate not only cars but also bike lanes and perhaps a bus rapid transit line. The city’s planning director praised this scheme as “a strong landscape strategy to create a memorable urban experience.”

Then the whole deal began to fall apart. In July, the federal government turned down the state’s request for $175 million to help pay for the project. A few weeks later, the Federal Highway Administration reported that parts of the connector, especially its overpasses, were in even worse shape than previously thought. “The deterioration of the bridges is accelerating,” Alviti told the governor, “and therefore immediate action is needed.” At that point Raimondo called a halt to the design process and simply ordered the 6/10 to be rebuilt in its current form.

Some of the urban activists didn’t buy the safety argument. They speculated that the governor had given in to the political demands of the “concrete coalition” of unions, traffic engineers and construction companies. “It’s electorally important for her to get construction workers on her side,” says James Kennedy, a widely respected environmentalist blogger. “If you’re a construction worker, you’re just thinking of what’s the next concrete project we can build.”

The game isn’t over. In October, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza offered yet another idea, an elevated traffic circle with vehicles passing underneath, new bike paths, some rebuilt streets and more elements of a parkway than of the 6/10 as it now exists. The urban activists called it flawed, but better than nothing. The governor called the idea “intriguing,” and said she would consider it. “The mayor will get some of what he wants,” predicts Bob Plain, editor of the urbanist alternative newspaper RI Future.

Underlying the debates in all these cities is the question of what demolishing a highway really does to a city’s transportation system. Those who wish to replace rusty interstates with leafy boulevards are fond of citing Milwaukee and San Francisco, both of which tore down freeways in the past quarter-century and saw the surrounding neighborhoods come back to life without any serious traffic problems on the local streets. They somewhat more tentatively mention Boston’s Big Dig, which demolished a hideous elevated highway and reclaimed much of the city’s central core for pedestrian use -- at a cost of $24 billion.

The truth, though, is that the sample size is just too small to draw any firm conclusions. Replacing monstrosities like the 6/10 or I-81 with boulevards might generate an urban windfall, or it might not. Some city bold enough to experiment will get a chance to find out.