Greater City Providence

RINPR: New Life For Old Train Tunnel May Be in the Works

Gov. Chafee says he’d like to see if it could be opened and used for RIPTA buses. DOT director Michael Lewis says there are no firm plans for the old tunnel and the point of Thursday’s inspection is to see if it’s structurally sound.

I have heard the Governor’s plan could include moving many bus operations from Kennedy Plaza to the Gano Street end of the tunnel and could cost something like a ZILLION dollars. This all sounds very fanciful especially coming from a lame-duck administration. No word from RIPTA about what they think about such a thing.

Also, the tunnel hasn’t been inspected in 20-years!? WTF!?

It does seem a waste to let such a valuable piece of infrastructure sit and rot, what would you do with it?

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  • Haunted House? Cheese/Wine/Bourbon aging cave? Covered Parking? Covered Linear Park/Multi-use path?

  • Put the bridge across the river back in use and run a rapid transit line from downtown, through the tunnel into East Providence – through old industrial areas ripe for redevelopment. A mix of residential and retail and office should sprout up along the route. Include Gano St. and N. Main St. stops on the PVD side.

  • Sadly, I think nothing should be done with it. I completely agree that it is a shame to let a valuable piece of infrastructure rot unused, but there just doesn’t seem to be a realistic and cost-effective way to use it.

    The tunnel is only a mile long, and there is no longer any rail bridge connecting it to East Providence. There is only one bus (I believe) that currently serves the area near the east portal (the 92), and that bus makes plenty of stops between downtown and the Gano street area. The other busses that go through the east side to east providence use the existing East Side Tunnel. Perhaps the idea is to generate a new bus line that is express from the Gano street area to downtown, using the tunnel. But that seems like a pretty expensive project for something that could be accomplished by simply running a bus from Gano through the existing East Side Tunnel.

    The tunnel is also not currently well connected to downtown. I went to look at the west portal this weekend, and realized that it’s set pretty far back from N. Main, up a fairly skinny driveway and behind a parking lot. There also seems to be a lot of new construction around there. Any projects that reopen the tunnel will have to deal with these (likely expensive) issues and will probably face a fair amount of neighbor backlash.

    Don’t get me wrong. I would love nothing more than the addition of a commuter train extension that left from providence station, used the tunnel, and continued through east providence and down the east bay. Or perhaps a gorgeous future streetcar extension. Or even a rapid bus from federal hill to Wayland. But things just don’t seem realistic given the current transit funding situation in Providence and Rhode Island.

    One thing I will say, is I would love to take a look inside the tunnel, guided of course. I bet there’s some interesting things in there.

  • If there’s a cost-effective way to do it, I think a bike tunnel would be cool. The tunnels tend to have much more gradual grades than the regular road, and although it would be a bad connection to the East Side, it would be a great bypass connector to East Providence, traffic free. Denmark has some of these underground tunnels (ironically, expanded by the Nazis). Could the rail bridge be upgraded to a bike bridge for less than other modes (less weight)? Also, definitely gotta’ double up on your outrage about inspections–aren’t there buildings above the tunnel?! Jesus.

  • This could be a good bus only tunnel, I also don’t know how easily something could get into the western portal, this is where the issues would be. But on the east portal it could easily connect to the Henderson Bridge and follow the right of way (with Transit only lanes) to the Wampanoag mall, where it could connect to other lines.
    It could remove some buses from 195/eastside and speed up some transit time.

  • Parking, obviously. This is Providence, after all.

    Seriously though, the bike tunnel idea sounds nice…

  • If I were governor I would so order up an official inspection of the tunnel! What other cool nooks and crannies can he just pick up the phone and get someone to unlock that we can’t?

    However, I bet Providence Water does not permit even the governor to assess the potential fish production of Scituate Reservoir.

    On a serious note, we will have teleportation before they reuse that tunnel.

  • Let’s say it was possible to put a staircase and/or an elevator in the middle of the tunnel. How much would that cost? How deep is the tunnel in its East Side portion? I figure it must be fairly deep, if it’s keeping a flatter route than the hill itself, so that would probably add expense. Would there be serious centers of employment that could connect to the tunnel through their basements? (This sounds like a wifty idea, I know, but I saw a tweet talking about how the old trains used to shake the basement in the sci-lab of Brown, so is the tunnel just on the other side of the foundations of some of the Brown buildings? I think knowing this would make the bike tunnel idea more practical. Seems far fetched to use it that way for busing, because that would imply either that the bus stopped at each of those little doors, or that people were going to walk from a centralized stop through part of the tunnel to a basement entrance, and neither of those things seems like it could happen.

    Philadelphia had this bizarro idea during the Rizzo Adminstration to put underground walking tunnels with shops in around City Hall. And they’re there. They run from 11th or so up to maybe 18th Street below the Comcast Center, and all the way from Vine Street to almost South Street. They can be a good way to walk around in the bitter cold, because they stay fifty degrees in all weather, but they tend to be piss-stained havens of disease and decay, too, and the shopping part of the tunnel fell apart long ago, except right around Suburban Station. I’d be interested to see what kinds of proposals could be brought to this to talk about “eyes on the street” to make the tunnel a non-creepy experience, if it were built.

  • This is quite a timely announcement for my architecture students at Roger Williams University, who are currently studying possible reuses for the tunnel. At this early stage, their proposals include: bike path, transit corridor, nightclubs/bars, wine cellars, museums/entertainment zones, adoption by Brown and RISD programs that have adjacent property, and–yes–parking. Many propose a combination of uses.

    These will be refined and altered as the semester progresses, but based on the preliminary student analysis, I tend to agree with the comments above that its reuse for bus transit is not really viable or necessary because of 1) the existing services; and 2) the infrastructure (re)investment that would be required to connect both ends back to the city streets or rails.

    The tunnel is almost dead level, and runs straight except for a gentle curve right at the west end. Because of the hill, the bottom of the tunnel is as deep as about 110′ below Prospect Street.

    If anyone is interested in the engineering history of the tunnel and a detailed account of its construction, here is a link to a 50-page article that appeared in an engineering journal in May, 1909, just after its completion: Link

  • It’s hard for me to imagine this tunnel NOT being creepy if used for biking. It would be an awesome idea if it could be done, but I just can’t see it being well used enough to have the “eyes on the street” necessary to not be creepy. There aren’t that many people walking on Providence streets as it is, let alone in its underground tunnels. However, I’d be open to seeing proposals that claim to produce a non-creepy pedestrian/bike tunnel out of this.

  • 60-years ago the tunnel would have made an effective fallout shelter.

    James K, the Bergenline Avenue Station in Union City is 160′ below the surface and the only access is by three large elevators, no stairs or escalators. Several New York subway stations are similarly arranged.

    I haven’t yet look at the engineering report that Jonathan refers to, but I read somewhere some time ago, that the ceiling of the tunnel around Thayer Street is around 75′ deep (or about seven stories below grade), beyond the reach of people’s cellars.

    Andy, there still remains a rail drawbridge from the East Side to East Providence that’s in its upright position, which should be inspected as well. There are several similar bridges, if not identical, along the Northeast Corridor from the same period in Connecticut that are still very much in use. Unless there’s been serious deterioration, there’s likely no reason why the existing bridge couldn’t be reused.

    Does it really make sense to reuse the tunnel for a underground bike path? To replicate the mile-long tunnel it would cost roughly $1-billion in today’s money. The Washington Bridge bike path that will reopen next year is less that a half-mile from the east portal of the tunnel and Henderson Bridge is roughly 3/4-mile away.

    Parking in the tunnel makes the least sense. Besides a long walk, if there were one drive aisle and cars parallel parked next to the aisle that would accommodate about 260 cars or so. Using today’s cost equivalent: $1-billion / 260 spaces = $3.8-million per parking space. That might put Providence on the map for have the most expensive parking spaces in the world.

    I would advocate for reusing the tunnel for transit whether it be bus and/or rail. Having said that it would be ridiculous to relocate the KP buses to Gano Street. Without developing new service there are at least three RIPTA bus routes from East Providence, some of which could be diverted to the tunnel, also the 92 could be extended to EP.

    Regarding the west portal, the stone abutment along the sidewalk at North Main Street would have to be dismantled. The slope from the West Portal floor at Benefit Street to North Main would be roughly 4%, which could easily accommodate buses or light-rail trains.

  • It could provide for really good eastern transit service. Bring all East Providence buses and the 60 through the tunnel. Having the 60 in the tunnel pulls it out of traffic on 195. The former rail bridge (the ‘erect bridge’) may prove too expensive to repair, the Henderson needs repairs and is overly wide. Henderson could be retrofitted to easily handle two bus lanes, a cycle track, wide-ish pedestrian promenades and automobile traffic. The busway could be continued through the existing ROW of the old proposed expressway for which the Henderson was actually built. From there buses could connect back 195 and the Wampanoag Trail. We could get super fancy and build bus lanes along 195 into Massachusetts all the way to Fall River (maybe have those buses terminate in North Tiverton) with commuter stops along 195. Super-duper fancy would be a light rail line all the way to Fall River along 195 with the light rail sharing the tunnel with East Providence and East Bay buses.

    We have to think of the cost vs. benefit though. Is rehabbing and maintaining this tunnel really worth some time savings for East Bay commuters? Will we realistically build public transit to Fall River (we’d have to play nice with Mass.)? Will we see (or will they even allow) dense transit oriented development in East Providence to create a customer base for this service? Dense mid-rise development along the EP waterfront with buses whisking people downtown in minutes would be very attractive, can we support that though?

  • There is of course the concern of running diesel buses through this tunnel. Electrifying, or buying hybrid diesel/electrics such as Boston’s Silver Line would add expense to any re-use plans, as could massive ventilation systems. I imagine more than cost, the ventilation issue may be the biggest hurdle to a mid-tunnel station, such as Thayer Street.

  • I would suggest that Governor Chafee and Director Lewis look only to our neighbors in the south/west. I would suggest that they take a long, hard look at the bottomless money sink known as “CTFastrak,” to find a very compelling reason why using the East Side Railroad Tunnel as a busway is a horrific idea. This does not work, this has never worked, and this will never work. Paving over rail corridors, no matter what their condition, for “cost saving” bus service is always a recipe for disaster, massive overruns, and a final product orders of magnitude worse than if the rails had just been refurbished instead.

    How many times are we going to have to learn this lesson?

    And as for the tunnel itself – while there’s still the matter of having to cross the river and actually connect the tunnel back to Providence Station, these are the only things standing in the way of shifting the NEC off of its existing routing between Providence and Attleboro and onto tracks across the river that are a little bit shorter and much straighter. By doing that, we send all of the non-stopping high speed Amtrak (and, perhaps eventually, express commuter rail as well) trains off of the existing slow and curvy track, freeing up a lot of capacity for new and improved commuter rail services while also opening up the possibility of restoring the old Pawtucket / Central Falls Station (which Amtrak will not allow us to do at present.)

  • I think that upkeeping the tunnel (at least to some standard) is necessary regardless, because if it were to collapse that would obviously be a bad thing for the people above, whether it’s in use or not.

    “there still remains a rail drawbridge from the East Side to East Providence that’s in its upright position, which should be inspected as well.”

    This bridge has a really strong cultural following among artsy people in Providence. Craftland sells t-shirts with a quote to the effect of “When a place gets rid of its strange things, it ceases to have character”. It would be really nice to see the bridge put to use. And biking does seem much more realistic for these old pieces of infrastructure than trains, buses, or cars. I think it would reduce the amount of engineering that would have to go into it, although, not being an engineer, I’m not sure by exactly how much.

    “There is of course the concern of running diesel buses through this tunnel. Electrifying, or buying hybrid diesel/electrics such as Boston’s Silver Line would add expense to any re-use plans, as could massive ventilation systems.”

    How much ventilation would be needed just to have ordinary people going through (again, say as bicyclists)? Is there good air flow for that, with no pollutants? I understand from my wikipedia research that the tunnel was open until the early ’90s, when some Brown students decided to get into a brick fight with the police over wanting to have a party there. It must have been somewhat inhabitable if people were willing to go there.

    Aesthetically, what if the tunnel went for some kind of interesting LED light show? You know, you can’t put plants (no light) and you can’t put windows to businesses, but maybe if you made the inside of the tunnel something that was artistic and interesting to see, people would come for the tunnel itself.

  • I love the silver-line bus idea, and the Fall River to Providence transit idea. It could be a huge boost to both cities, but, as outlined in the posting, lots of issues to consider.

    I think the bike idea could be pretty simple – a right of way to get bikes into the west entrance would be much easier than one for cars or buses, I would think.

    I gotta think the cheapest option for the “stairway to heaven” bridge would be to reuse the granite pilings and replace the metal part with a simple bridge for bikes, which would be a big thing to. I really think the tunnel’s value is in moving some sort of traffic right into EP, rather than to the East Side only. The Henderson bridge ideas have merit too.

    There is already a nice bike crossing underway on the 195 bridge, but still another year to go for that.

  • Regarding the Henderson. Rumor has it from some engineering types I know that the Henderson is extremely structurally deficient and essentially needs to be replaced. The last maintenance on that bridge was emergency maintenance to hold it over until more funds were available for a proper rehab.

    Attached to the same rumor was the suggestion that the bridge may be reduced to 1 lane each way with separated bike lanes installed, in part due to structural issues, but also due to having a higher design capacity than current use levels justify.

    Back to the tunnel:
    I suggested the bike lane idea with tongue firmly in cheek. Having gone through many tunnels in western PA, the air temperatures inside the tunnel are likely a steady 45F or so, which makes for very uncomfortable variations during a summer ride.

    A sub-hub at the eastern entrance could make sense, if linked to a frequent through tunnel rail service to eliminate the need for the Pawtucket, East Providence and East Bay services to continue all the way to KP. Or simpyly to get them to KP faster by avoiding the Thayer street congestion. A tunnel needn’t only serve one type of vehicle, and if ventilation were possible, special buses wouldnt even be required. (

    This would still leave the 40,42 and 92 services to serve the neighborhoods of the east side. The down side would need to work out how those 3 services could connect to the rail tunnel sub-hub and its connected services.

  • My view on this:
    No point in Ripta using the tunnel as Ea Prov lines are either already express on I-195, or have an East Side ridership market and have the bus tunnel to get downtown.
    Bike path worth exploring but issue of creepiness quite serious.
    Amtrak route thru tunnel and on to Boston was totally rejected by abutters when the Northeast Corridor was being developed, I don’t see that changing and can’t imagine any interest Amtrak might have in replicating existing infrastructure (electrification etc) they have alreay invested in, especially as tea-party types in Congress are threatening their very existence.
    There is also an opportunity cost in any funds are used for any of that. We don’t have identified funding to bring the Blackstone Bikeway to Pawtucket or downtown Woonsicket, to finish the South County Bikeway to the beach, for anything on Aquidneck Island, for building a Pawtucket commuter train stop or other infill stations or extensions southwards, or for future operating assistance to maintain current levels of transit service on Ripta and the MBTA. It is arguable that all of that is higher priority than tunnel reuse.
    I think the only realistic thing to do is ensure it is properly railbanked if commuter/light rail service to the East Bay is ever wanted.

  • Light rail or a future street car line from Providence station to the east side.

    Like so many of the ROWs in RI, I wish we could go back and stop them from tearing up the rails…

  • Uggh…

    1) This from the Governor who supported a rotary in a suburb (Warwick) over Streetcar System in PVD
    2) This from the Governor who apppoints a suburban mayor (Warwick) chairman of RIPTA
    3) RIPTA bus line from PVD to its suburbs of Fall River or New Bedford is a good idea in any event
    Bottom line — -Get the PVD Streetcar system built!

  • First things first.

    Reroute East Providence buses to a sub-hub that provides frequent, rapid service to Providence via Red Bridge, Angell/Waterman, and the bus tunnel. As Jef proposed, the #60 serves this hub by a new route that bypasses stoplights and traffic on Pawtucket Ave. Plans for the EP waterfront, which now seem all about drive-in, drive-out need to be changed to dense, transit oriented development. Add a sub-hub at Wayland Square. Upgrade the bus tunnel/Angell/Waterman/Red Bridge corridor to a streetcar line. Maybe put a park and ride out there somewhere.

    Only after all this is in place does the train tunnel go from solution in search of a problem to solution. When ridership on the Angell/Waterman streetcar approaches capacity, add an express route through the train tunnel.

  • I was wondering what condition the tunnel was in and what it would take to make it a passable and safe bike way. I found these pics that look like they are from 2011.

    Its in pretty good condition but I still wonder what it would cost to keep the water out. A floor would have to be installed and I would imagine there would have be some kind of pumping system. Not sure about walls. I have seen other pictures with stalactites hanging from the seams which means there is ground water penetration. At the very least all these seams would have to be sealed, at most you might have to reline the whole tunnel. The current electrical system is woefully outdated so you would need a new system to with enough emergency lighting to make the tunnel safe in a power failure.

    I am not saying it can’t be done but in the end is it cost effective to spend that money for a tunnel that does nothing more than connect two points? In the end would it really save that much time over a surface ROW for a street car system that would allow multiple stops across the east side. Would it be more convenient than putting in a separated surface bike way connecting the new 195 bike bridge to downtown. A tunnel would be out of the weather but is it worth the cost?

  • Nice Pictures! I wonder why the Narragansett Bay Commission didn’t use it for storm overflow instead of digging a new tunnel?

  • Jeff, the tunnel sits above the level of downtown, if it were filled with storm overflow, and there was a catastrophic failure, it would flood a large area of North Main/Canal Street near RISD and pour that water into the river.

  • Slightly north of Amy Street (between Amy and East George) just past Gano Street’s east sidewalk. Look at Google Maps in the satellite mode. You’ll see a heavily treelined corridor leading to the RR bridge to EP.

  • Thank you. I see it runs directly behind the East Side Commons condos and behind the shopping complex.

    The Governor’s mind is strange – opening up a tunnel but not investing in a major people mover for an emerging development (IWay plus). This tunnel will never make it in the current economic climate…big rennovation and water mitigation costs.

    Certainly this would be a good project as part of a larger mass transit plan for PVD and immediate metro, including the streecar system.

    I would hope that someone realizes that the PVD Metro runs from Westerly to New Bedford and that RIPTA buses should be extended north to Foxboro and east through Fall River to New Bedford.

    Hoping for a Governor from PVD (or at least an urban thinker).

  • The best thing to do is to make the railroad tunnel into part of the bus tunnel.

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