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DOT disputes critics who say it slashed bike and pedestrian budget

The newly opened Providence River Pedestrian Bridge. JonathanWiggs /GlobeStaff Reporter:Topic:providence bridge
The newly opened Providence River Pedestrian Bridge. JonathanWiggs /GlobeStaff Reporter:Topic:providence bridge(The Boston Globe)

PROVIDENCE -- Advocates are criticizing the Rhode Island Department of Transportation for its proposal to slash $37 million from a 10-year plan for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

“We think that is shortsighted, unnecessary and economically counterproductive,” GrowSmartRI Executive Director Scott Wolf said.

But Director Peter Alviti Jr. says that while DOT plans to cut the Transportation Alternatives Program to about $120 million, the state will end up with $200 million in bike and pedestrian work over the next decade because it’s now doing that kind of work as part of larger road and bridge projects.

Alviti noted Rhode Island has the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the nation. “We have an obligation to fix those unsafe roads and bridges,” he said, “and we will not be distracted from that because of the criticisms of some people that want us to spend more money on bike and pedestrian projects.”

At the same time, Alviti said, DOT plans to boost the overall amount spent on bike and pedestrian work to an average of $20 million per year for the next 10 years.

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That will be accomplished in large part by folding bike and pedestrian improvements into road and bridge projects such as those involving the Pell Bridge (between Newport and Jamestown) and the Henderson Bridge (between Providence and East Providence), he said.

Alviti acknowledged DOT is planning to put three projects on the back burner, including the $5.5-million Trestle Trail project in Coventry.

Bike advocates say that project would link bike routes in Rhode Island and Connecticut as part of the East Coast Greenway, which runs from Maine to Florida. But Alviti said, “We have deficient bikeways in the urban core that get much higher use than a trail out to Connecticut.”

Wolf said DOT has incorporated bike and pedestrian work into bridge and road projects in the past, so he’s not sure DOT is making a significant new funding commitment. Also, he said having separate funding for bike and walking projects helps to ensure transparency and accountability.

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Alviti said DOT would cut the Transportation Alternatives Program from about $157 million to $120 million as part of Major Amendment Number 19.

On Friday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo and other top officials took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Providence River Pedestrian Bridge. And Betty Bourret, a Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition board member who lives in Smithfield, stood on the path to the bridge, wearing a bike helmet and holding a sign that read: “Stop #19.”

“Please don’t cut any more bicycle and walk projects,” Bourret told Raimondo. “We need them now. Don’t postpone.”

At the end of her speech about the pedestrian bridge, Raimondo noted bike path advocates were at the ceremony.

“Know that we’re not going to stop continuing to invest in infrastructure in all of its kinds,” Raimondo said. “In bike paths, in bridges, in pedestrian walks, in roads, in greenways, in public transportation. It’s core to our community, it’s core to our economy, and we are going to keep it going.”

The pedestrian bridge’s $22-million price tag stirred controversy in part because the American Road and Transportation Builders Association has said 23.1 percent of bridges in Rhode Island were structurally deficient last year — higher than any other state. Raimondo has launched a 10-year plan, called RhodeWorks, to carry out $4.7 billion in bridge and road work.

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“We don’t want our bridges to fall down -- we certainly support that,” Sarah Mitchell, chair of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition. “But we also believe that investing in biking and walking is crucial for our transportation future, especially when we are on the verge of releasing the first state Bicycle Mobility Plan.”

Bike and pedestrian projects in the Transportation Alternatives Program represent just two percent of the overall transportation spending planned for the next decade, Wolf said. And the state has received $358 million for bridge work since February, he said.

State Representative Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat, attended Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on her bicycle. She said she was pleased to see the pedestrian bridge opening but she said the state should not be cutting $37 million from the 10-year plan for bike and pedestrian projects.

Tanzi noted the state is borrowing $200 million to widen Route 95 in downtown Providence, saying, “Give me $200 million to invest in public transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure.” Those kinds of alternative transportation projects would keep people safer and healthier, benefitting both the environment and the economy, she said.

The Department of Transportation held a hearing in Narragansett Town Hall on Tuesday night and will hold another hearing on Major Amendment Number 19 at 4 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15, at the Department of Administration building, One Capitol Hill, Providence.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FitzProv.

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