Big Dig redux in Prov?

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Tunnel entrance visible at left of plan to renovate the Route 6-10 connector. (RIDOT)

My impression of the proposed 6-10 connector alternative to rebuilding the aging highway was to replace the highway with a surface boulevard – a concept I cheered last December in “A boulevard, not a highway.” Imagine my surprise reading in today’s Journal that the “boulevard” concept had morphed into the Biggest Little Dig.

Boston’s Big Dig replaced its elevated I-93 with a tunnel covered by the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Whatever we think of it now, it is famous for its cost overruns. I have the same pit in my gut at today’s Providence Journal’s story, “Green Gateway,” by John Hill, which describes the new plan to “entomb Route 10 in concrete walls with a roof covered in dirt over the roadway to create a park-like median from Route 6 to Broadway.”

Huh? Whatever happened to replacing the highway with a boulevard? Perhaps that concept was never feasible. Perhaps you could never get the amount of traffic on the connector through a boulevard worthy of the public’s support. And now they’re saying it will cost upwards of $800 million in state and federal funds. This apparently does not include money to be spent on other road and bridge repairs on the state’s to-do list. The 6-10 revamp is expected to take up a tenth of RIDOT’s RhodeWorks bridge and road repair program (excluding the cost of the truck-tax infrastructure). Already, the speed of this bracket creep is breathtaking.

The bus rapid transit (BRT) part of the program sounds nice but why put the bus lanes in the middle, requiring expansive bridge gantries to enable riders to get to buses?

Given the broader and deeper overlapping budget quagmires engulfing the city and state (not to mention the feds), why not build a simpler boulevard? Why not build a boulevard with two sets of three lanes in both directions flanked by two sets of two lanes on either side? Can the tunnel deck park. A wide verdant median could separate the two sets of three fast lanes in the middle, with narrower verdant medians separating the flanking slower service roads on either side of the main drag.

This is the traditional design of a boulevard. Regular buses and bikeways would go up and down the service lanes and the BRT could go up the middle, with pull-overs that would negate the need for costly rider flyovers. (Recent news of scant ridership on the southern R.I. segments of MBTA might raise some eyebrows about BRT.) The money saved by a more basic design could be invested in elegant landscaping and street furniture throughout the route, reknitting long-severed neighborhoods and creating allure for new development on either side. Thus conceived, the idea could be expanded farther along Routes 6 and 10 rather than concentrating so much of the renovation on the connector segment itself.

I’m sure there must be some hitch to this simple plan, or the authorities would have embraced it themselves, right?

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Big Dig redux in Prov?

  1. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Found “soundslike” -and yes, agree wholeheartedly, but if the cement-mixing syndicate is going to jam this down our throats, lets at least mitigate. Capping that nightmare is better than not.

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  2. “I’m sure there must be some hitch to this simple plan, or the authorities would have embraced it themselves, right?” A cynic would reply that there’s more money for the connected contractors with this project. An optimist would suggest that the DOT cannot conceive of an urban solution. This is of a piece with their “solution” to the pedestrians using the shortest way across the highway entrance at Memorial & Francis.

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  3. barry says:

    “Soundslike” has the big picture right.
    RIDOT Director Alviti did note the fundamental tradeoff between the interest of impatient suburban motorists wanting to use Routes 6-10 thru the city to get to Route 95 as quickly as possible, and the interests of city residents concerned with reconnecting and revitalizing neighborhoods, making land available for development or parks or bike paths, and reducing noisy and ugly auto infrastructure that hurts quality of life in the city. Neither will care that much about the other’s interests but the RIDOT Director has to be concerned with both. (And that is an improvement since in earlier times they were concerned only for the motorists.)

    It is interesting that the same name so associated with making cities ugly with his modernist buildings, would seek do the same for transportation, as the great Corbu, Le Corbusier, was quoted at the Planning Dept event as having said in 1924 “cars, cars, fast, fast”

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  4. Michael Tyrrell says:

    I like the idea of capping the interchange and giving Olnyville a more civilized connection to the West End. However the proposed cap need not preclude a boulevard design from, say, Broadway, to the Providence Place Mall (or there a outs). Lets not repeat the damage done in 1960-63 when the West End was severed from Downtown. Indeed the Olneyville “repair” effort can serve as a precedent for future reconstruction and air rights over I-95 near, say, the Cathedral and Police Station.

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  5. Soundslike – As someone who chose with joy to be rid of his car while living downtown, and found the experience (1999-2004) every bit as joyful as he expected, I would like to second your emotion!

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  6. Stephen Wallace says:

    Great article, David. -Steve Wallace

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  7. Soundslike says:

    The DOT’s presentation was certainly a deflating moment at last night’s event, following the exploration of all that could be done if there were the vision and the will; and all that has been lost by putting speed and quantity of throughput first and most. Especially given the frank and accurate assessment of through-city-highway tunnelling and decking-over as prohibitively expensive band-aids that merely punt the inherent insanity of allowing out-of and through-towners entitlement to hurl their metal pods at 70 m.p.h. through other peoples’ neighborhoods and cities to wherever the tunnels/decks end. The Biggest Little Dig is pure fantasy, “compromise” that really puts the priority and the money on cars instead of people, and which will get value engineered back to a few hundred million dollars of the same old wastelanding.

    We can’t afford to maintain our cars-over-all addiction, and yet we can’t fathom getting clean, even though it would save us an immense amount of money and allow us to live life more fully. So junkies that we are, we’ll beg and borrow to keep the hits coming, even as their effect increasingly fails to give us the high we need. For those of us that live here and don’t need to travel at insane speeds through our neighborhoods, it’s even worse–we’re getting mugged to get others high, and then they’re shooting up in our house. And we don’t have the will to say no.

    We’ve decided it’s all a necessary cost of doing business: the social and economic injustice and segragation, the environmental degradation, the cultural disintegration, the political polarization, the loss of our good health, the war-scale death and injury, the historical and physical dislocation, the squandering of the greatest wealth of any civilization in history on the ugliest and most inhumane environments, these are all fundamentally unquestioned at the level where the decisions are made and orthodoxies upheld. Nevermind that all of this is a historical aberration, an experiment on an unprecedented scale that was objectively a failure within its first twenty years, but which we’ve carried on for a further forty just to be sure, with no end in sight. This is what it means to be an American now, and while we’ll put in a token BRT or Big Dig or bike lane or whatever here and there so we can feel good and green about ourselves and pretend we want better, we don’t really want to get the fuck out of our cars even a little. And those of us who take seriously the notion that maybe we’re not meant to need to wield tons of metal with deadly force through somebody else’ neighborhood to go get gas and milk, we’re the weird ones.

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