Big Dig Lite Rhode Island Plans $595M Highway Cap

The project would bury a Providence Expressway beneath a park-lined boulevard.

📅 Wed June 01, 2016 - Northeast Edition
Matt O’Brien - Associated Press


Rhode Island is seeking federal help to replace a dilapidated highway interchange with a $595 million project that would bury a Providence expressway beneath a park-lined boulevard.
Rhode Island is seeking federal help to replace a dilapidated highway interchange with a $595 million project that would bury a Providence expressway beneath a park-lined boulevard.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) Just don't call it a tunnel.

Rhode Island is seeking federal help to replace a dilapidated highway interchange with a $595 million project that would bury a Providence expressway beneath a park-lined boulevard.

Critics warn the project could be another Big Dig — Boston's Central Artery project that achieved similar results in 2007 after decades of cost overruns that totaled more than $20 billion.

Transportation officials consider the comparison off-base because there's no digging involved. They say the interchange of Routes 6 and 10 needs an urgent fix because seven of its nine bridges are structurally deficient, and capping the freeway would heal some of the social wounds caused by mid-20th century planners who carved an ugly bypass through once-thriving neighborhoods.

Here's a closer look at the plans:

Is It a Tunnel?

No, not really, said Department of Transportation spokesman Charles St. Martin. And that's one of the clearest differences between the Providence idea and blunder-prone projects such as Boston's Big Dig and Seattle's ongoing Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement.

“We're not digging into the earth. The highway's already at the grade it needs to be,” he said.

That's because Route 6 is already depressed, running like a car-filled urban canyon though the west side of Providence. So the plan would be to build a concrete deck, pile dirt onto it and lay surface roads on top.

“You can call it concrete vaults, essentially,” St. Martin said of the lower-level throughways.

It'll look like a tunnel when you're driving through it. The state's own grant application for federal money calls it “short segments of decked-over tunnels.”

Project Cost

The estimated cost is $595 million, not including a proposed rapid bus line that could be added later.

The state last week submitted a request for a $175 million federal grant awarded to “nationally significant” highway projects.

Most of the rest would be paid through the state's 10-year transportation repair plan that lawmakers passed and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo signed this year.

That plan was hotly debated because it will raise money by charging big-rig trucks a toll to pass through Rhode Island.

Will It Cost More?

The project is big by the standards of the nation's smallest state, but not by the usual definition of a megaproject — one that costs at least $1 billion. But a prominent megaproject skeptic says it fits the profile in other ways.

“This is the type of project where the risk of a cost overrun is very high,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University's Said Business School who reviewed the state's grant application at the request of The Associated Press.

“The planners are a bit optimistic if they think that contingency is going to be large enough,” he said.

The Big Dig was originally pitched as a $2.6 billion project but it mushroomed to more than $24 billion.

But the fact that no inner-city digging is involved “makes it a heckuva lot easier,” said Virginia Greiman, a Boston University professor of megaprojects and planning.

She said such projects can work well as long as planners properly take risks into account.

Why Fix It?

More than 90,000 trips are made through the 6/10 interchange each day, but its bridges are structurally deficient.

It's also harmed surrounding neighborhoods such as Olneyville Square, once considered Providence's second downtown but now one of the city's poorest districts.

“In its present condition and by its sheer size, the brutalist infrastructure of the 6/10 interchange dominates the surrounding urban landscape,” said the state's grant application.

A big element of the plan is to hide that urban chasm and reunite long-severed neighborhoods. The extra space would be a “blank canvas for the city” that could be used for parks or development, St. Martin said.

Just a Boulevard?

But critics say what the state's calling a boulevard is really just a decked highway.

An alliance of public transit advocates and cost-wary Republicans is calling for the state to ditch the bilevel superstructure plan in favor of a cheaper and simpler boulevard.

That could annoy some suburban commuters whose bypass would be reverted back to city roads, but advocates say it could improve traffic flow and leave more room for development.

What's the Rush?

Some have criticized officials for rushing through their favored plan without more seriously considering alternatives.

One community forum this month grew so heated that Peter Alviti, transportation director had to apologize after berating a critic who accused him of not listening to residents.

“Let me tell you something, pal,” Alviti had said as he wagged his finger. “We took every one of the suggestions. We ran them through some of the top experts in the country.”

St. Martin said the state had a short time to apply for the federal grant but he said, “this is just the beginning of the process” that will include studying alternatives.

(This story also can be found on Construction Equipment Guide's Web site at www.constructionequipmentguide.com.)