Providence, RI decides the future of a deteriorating freeway

By Bill Holloway

Efforts to duplicate the urban freeway removal success stories of Milwaukee and San Francisco, both of which allowed valuable urban land to be redeveloped, face an uphill battle despite many boosters. The debate between urban boosters and state DOTs that control most urban freeways has recently come to Providence, Rhode Island, with the question of what do to with the 6/10 connector. The 6/10 is a two-mile stretch of highway linking Providence with its suburbs that carries nearly 100,000 cars per day. Discussions over how to replace the 6/10, which hosts a number of old and structurally deficient bridges, have been going on for decades but kicked into high gear earlier this year when the legislature decided to fund construction.

As noted by Alan Ehrenhalt in his article earlier this month, when the 6/10 was originally built it bisected Olneyville, one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. In recent years there has been a push to replace the highway with a boulevard in order to reconnect the neighborhood and make the route accessible to transit and pedestrians. However, in September Governor Raimondo decided that, given the current state of the 6/10, the additional delay required to consider different approaches would present too much of a safety hazard and that the 6/10 should be replaced in its current form as soon as possible.

In October, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza pitched a compromise plan that includes an elevated traffic circle over a rebuilt surface level highway at the 6/10 junction, additional bike trails, landscape improvements, and the revitalization of about 55 acres of currently underutilized land adjacent to the highway. However, Elorza’s plan was ultimately rejected by Rhode Island DOT (RIDOT) in favor of a compromise design announced Dec 8. Recent inspections of one of the 6/10 bridges revealed accelerating deterioration, leading RIDOT to recommend immediate replacement of the bridge. The compromise does not free up as much land as local leaders had hoped, but does improve connectivity between adjacent neighborhoods as well as better pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

Whether the San Francisco and Milwaukee freeway removals were the first signs of a larger movement toward urban freeway removal or just one-offs, remains to be seen. However, residents of Rochester, NY, have been watching the transformation of the Inner Loop sunken freeway and conversion to a boulevard, a project that is freeing up six acres of land for development. Bloggers have even been documenting the progress with before and after Google Street View images.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.