Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

New tunnel proposed by RIDOT: Is its goal to make poor people less visible?

In the arena, in a car, on a bus, riding a bicycle, or walking down a street: how we view the world changes what we see

Image from RIDOT, courtesy of Uprise RI

The proposed plans by RIDOT to build a tunnel underneath Kennedy Plaza to disperse the current central bus hub in downtown Providence.

By Tom Sgouros
Posted 9/23/19
In the current climate emergency, the proposal to build a tunnel under Kennedy Plaza and disperse the central hub of bus transportation connecting the state seems to be myopic public policy.
When will the state commission a traffic flow study examining the projected growth in car and truck traffic along Point and Eddy streets as a result of the new developments associated with the Wexford Innovation Complex? How much of downtown Providence has evolved as a workplace destination as a result of the changing nature of work itself, without the need for large, centralized office buildings? What are the biggest draws for people to come to downtown Providence, according to recent studies and research? How much of the land in downtown Providence and its surrounding neighborhoods is owned by large nonprofits who do not pay property taxes, such as hospitals, churches, colleges and universities?
This week, Rhode Island Kids Count will release two different sets of statistics around poverty. The first, on Tuesday, Sept. 24, will be a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, looking at children living in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods, analyzing five-year Census data from 2008-2012 and 2013-2017. The second, on Thursday, Sept. 26, will be a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau looking at national and state-level information about poverty and family income for one-year Census data for 2018.
The two data reports offer an opportunity to seek to create a new kind of dataset around what is meant by poverty in Rhode Island, to establish new metrics about quality of life in Rhode Island based upon health equity, racial equity, and economic determinants of health and education, as well as environmental factors, building into the benchmarks the kinds of externalities that are often left out of poverty statistics based on traditional economics.

PROVIDENCE – A few years ago, walking down Dorrance Street in Providence, I saw former Mayor Joe Paolino get into the passenger seat of a car outside of his building on the corner of Weybosset and drive off.

There was traffic and I walked briskly, and as I rounded the corner of the old Journal Bulletin building just a couple of minutes later, I saw him get out of the car in front of the Convention Center and walk into the building as the car drove off.

It was a lovely day, and I reflected on the burden of recognition that a former mayor must face, presumably why he felt the need to be driven four short blocks.

Maybe it’s a burden, and maybe it’s a pleasure, to be able to afford that kind of convenience. Either way, is a person whose life includes a private driver someone you would ask for advice about buses?

At a meeting a couple of weeks ago, R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti unveiled a new plan to remake Kennedy Plaza. The plan includes sending most of the RIPTA buses elsewhere, and building a tunnel for Washington Street, so one need not look both ways to walk from Kennedy Plaza to Burnside Park. It appears that Joe Paolino was behind the proposal, claiming that expulsion of the buses would somehow improve both RIPTA service and Kennedy Plaza.

The Alviti/Paolino plan would involve dispersing buses among four or five different stops, strung out in a line between the State House and Rhode Island Hospital. Some bus lines would terminate at each of the stops, reducing the number of buses that go to Kennedy Plaza. The current bus stops would be eliminated, and Washington Street itself would be submerged beneath a deck connecting the Plaza and the Park.

“One does not build a tunnel in the central plaza of a modern city by simply using a Sharpie to draw a line on a map,” said Patricia Raub, coordinator of the Rhode Island Transit Riders group, at a press conference in Providence’s Burnside Park held on Thursday, Sept. 19.

Raub and her group of transit riders called the tunnel an absurd idea. If it is an improvement at all, she said, it will be a tiny one, and yet it will cost millions. Further, the aprons of concrete on either side of the tunnel would make it impossible to cross Washington Street for more than a hundred feet in either direction.

Raub pointed out there are more than “a hundred years’ worth of electric, gas, steam, phone, and sewer conduits” crisscrossing the plaza, so who knows how hard it will be to wriggle through that maze with new construction. Because the tunnel would be below sea level, it won’t drain easily and will require pumps to keep it dry, a sobering thought in an era of rising sea levels.

Why disperse the bus hub?
The tunnel may be a ridiculous idea, but no more so than the plan to disperse the bus hub that is so vital to Rhode Island’s bus service. Other cities move mountains to have what we already have in Providence: a central transit hub, from which getting anywhere in the state is relatively convenient.

Under the new tunnel plan, making a connection from one line to another would turn into a several block hike, instead of just across the plaza. If the plan were to be implemented, my coming winter commute would be much colder, wetter, longer, and less reliable as a result.

There is, of course, an alternate plan for Kennedy Plaza, developed last summer in a very public process, and with support from bus riders [mostly], the city, and much of the area businesses. But it would leave a substantial RIPTA presence in the plaza.

Examining recent history

It is worthwhile to examine the recent history of Kennedy Plaza. Paolino advocated moving the old Bonanza Bus station out of downtown when he was Mayor, partly to clear the site for the Convention Center, and partly to move that perceived magnet for loitering and crime out of town.

As a private landlord, he was important to the effort to move Crossroads [then Traveler’s Aid] out of downtown, into the old YMCA, for the same reason. The exact same reasoning appears to be behind the new proposal to break up the RIPTA hub: the plaza has a lot of unruly activity in it, with a lot of poor people hanging out there.

These things are obviously true; I walk through the plaza a couple of times most days. But what is the evidence that moving buses is the way to change that? Maybe Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park are well occupied not because the buses terminate there, but because they are central public spaces where one can hang out and see people?

Such problems are the problems that bedevil all public spaces in 21st century America. Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park are not going to become less central just because the buses don’t terminate there. Even judged on the terms that Paolino would have us judge it, where the only important question is:will it make Kennedy Plaza a nicer place -- the proposal faces a substantial risk of failure, at great expense.

Of course, that is not the only important question. What makes this a nearly criminal waste of time and money is that we are in the midst of a climate emergency. The world is burning up, and if we are going to stop it, we need to be thinking about how to move people around using less gas.

Transit and climate

Government action on climate is needed now, at all levels of government. We need transit improvements – and big ones – right now. In fact, the state is sitting on $35 million approved five years ago for transit improvements, and which have barely been touched. We don’t need to spend that money to make downtown property more desirable for big landlords; we need to put bus riders first, to make transit convenient enough to reduce the numbers of cars on the roads.

Public policy failures
But that’s not what we’re getting. The current RIDOT projects include plans to widen I-95, to reconstruct the Route 6-10 corridor, and maybe, if there are funds left, we might do the odd pedestrian or bicycle improvement project.

Roads are not the only policy where we fall down, either. Our state is phasing out incentives for developing solar power; we continue to move state offices out into the suburbs where driving is essential. The new location of Citizens Bank out in Johnston demonstrates we have no policy for encouraging re-use of land already served by transit [and other utilities].

This is not leadership, in my opinion. Gov. Gina Raimondo’s transportation policies represent a disgraceful embrace of the status quo in the face of a global emergency that will render that status quo untenable.

Addressing climate change is going to take a great deal more effort than the occasional workshop about coastline resiliency and some funding for shoring up coastal roads. What is before our nation and the whole world is an emergency, and it is high time our state began to act like it.

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