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Barry Schiller: State Rail Plan hearings, January 23, 2014

superman-train

Photo (cc) Providence Public Library

Barry Schiller, a retired Rhode Island College math professor, is a long-time member of the State Planning Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee. He also was on the RIPTA Board of Directors 1995-1999.

Here is a chance to give your opinion on any railroad related issue in Rhode Island. In response to Federal incentives, RI is developing a State Rail Plan for both passenger and freight services. A draft is available on-line at Planning.ri.govpdf. There will be public hearings on this draft on Thursday, January 23 at 10am and 6:30pm at the Department of Administration Building in Providence.

The draft plan starts with state railroad history, explains the process for developing the plan, notes related Federal programs and previous studies, and inventories the existing situation. The plan goes on to identify various desirable goals related to safety, security, infrastructure condition, reliability, service levels, coordination with other agencies, economic activity, congestion reduction, environment, and financial feasibility, but perhaps the heart of it is with Chapter 10 “Rhode Island Rail Investment Program” which suggests implementation plans over a 20 year timeframe.

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Barry Schiller: Providence Planning Hosts Meeting on Kennedy Plaza, Downtown Circulation

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Barry Schiller, a retired Rhode Island College math professor, is a long-time member of the State Planning Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee. He also was on the RIPTA Board of Directors 1995-1999.

Overall: good ideas on the parts of the project about 2-way streets and pedestrian and bike improvements around downtown, but on Kennedy Plaza, a net loss for bus riders, but not as much as once feared.

The project: extend 2-way on Empire, 2-way on Dorrance in front of the Biltmore, and on Exchange Terrace on north side of Burnside Park; narrow Fountain Street by widening sidewalk, maybe include a bike lane and add “public space” at the squares on both ends (La Salle Square, Emmet Square) to slow traffic and be much more pedestrian friendly;

Kennedy Plaza: no change in RIPTA waiting room but the adjacent plaza will have much more public space by eliminating the inner berths and bus lanes. Thus we’d go from 8 bus-only lanes to 4; possible amenities added such as more seating, plantings, public art, and maybe more shelters if funding permits. The 16 current bus berths there now (4 sets of 4 each) would be reduced to 10 – 4 eastbound on the north side, 5 (one more than now) westbound on the south side, and one new one on Exchange Street across from the court house. The loss of berths would be partly made up by another bus berth up the hill on the little street where the trolleys now stop, and another new berth behind the Q stop on Exchange St where the Newport buses stop. Thus there is a net loss of 4 berths. If more berths are ever needed, likely to be on north side of Burnside Park on Exchange Terrace, or up Exchange Street near Memorial Blvd by the undeveloped triangle of land there.

Unresolved issues: what to do with intercity Peter Pan/Greyhound buses; whether there will be a fence separating the bus lane from Washington Street traffic which could help direct pedestrian crossings; funding for more shelters; who is in charge of snow removal.

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Guest Post: A Trip to Newport; The Breakers Welcome Center

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The Breakers in Newport

An anonymous reader is taking the readers of Greater City Providence to Newport and laying out the proposal set forth by the Preservation Society of Newport County to construct a permanent welcome center on the grounds of the landmark property, The Breakers.

The city of Newport has long been the center of tourism for Rhode Island and much of southern New England. Known for its sandy beaches, sailing, historic architecture spanning three centuries, superb dining, art galleries, and historic landmarks, the city by the sea has welcomed millions seeking to explore, learn, relax, and to enjoy themselves. Tourism is on the rise and museums are in the midst of creating world-class visitor centers meant to provide the proper introduction to an institute, property, or collection. In late August 2012, an article published by the Newport Daily News announced plans by the Preservation Society of Newport County to construct a 3700 sq ft ‘welcome center’ on the grounds of The Breakers. Plans were not yet finalized; however, the Preservation Society had announced that the architectural firm of Epstein-Joslin of Cambridge, MA had been chosen to design a structure that would fit into the historic grove and landscape of the organization’s flagship property.

The intent is to clear away unsightly and temporary structures that house a ticketing venue, seasonal portable toilets, and a vending machine and replace them with a permanent structure. The new structure will house restrooms, café, and ticketing venue.

As the flagship property, The Breakers receives roughly half of the visitor attendance that the Society will see annually and collectively in a collection of eleven historic properties. That equals to nearly 400,000 visitors out of 800,000 that will tour the great mansion built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1893-1895. The Breakers is one of the top five most-visited house museums in America, among the notables: Biltmore, Monticello, and Mount Vernon. The Preservation Society is also one of the top four major cultural organizations in New England with the other three in Boston; the Museum of Science, the New England Aquarium, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Comparing to other institutions, the accommodations at The Breakers is subpar.

The proposal, as announced, sparked a wave of letters sent to the Newport Daily News, Newport This Week, and the Providence Journal. Most were against the proposal in various tones, fearing business would be lost at area establishments that are dependent on tourism traffic to the mansions on Bellevue Avenue, while others pointed at historic preservation and the thought of the fabric of the landscape being forever ruined. Whatever the case may be, there are many reasons to not build a visitor center period, especially on the grounds of the mansion.

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Aaron M. Renn: For Commuter Rail, Better Service to Boston, Not Southward Expansion

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MBTA Commuter Rail passing under Providence Place. Photo (cc) Sean_Marshall.

Rhode Island recently spent a large sum of money to extend MBTA commuter rail service south to TF Green Airport and Wickford Junction. Both of them feature large parking garages (although the TF Green Interlink facility is for more than rail transit) that are not typical of suburban train stations and were very expensive.

These stations are only served by select trains on weekdays only, and feature long journey times to Boston – 1:35 from TF Green and 1:50 from Wickford Junction. Though these stations can be useful for commuting to downtown Providence – I’ve used the TF Green service for that myself – Providence is not nearly the employment market Boston is. What’s more, the Wickford Junction station is in a particularly inauspicious location.

Unsurprisingly, ridership is low. TF Green had about 200 passengers per day as of last summer, and Wickford Junction about 150.

With a mind-numbing total price tag of $100 million for this project (the estimated cost of just the transit portions) – almost $300,000 per rider – it’s unlikely that this will ever be viewed as a successful project.

As with the philosophy of the Boston area commuter rail generally, this service expansion was based on expanding the coverage area, but not the quality of service. In effect, it is an equity investment to make access to transit more equally available geographically (though economically more troubled areas like Pawtucket remain without service, so it doesn’t provide more economic equity).

While geographic equity is a legitimate government goal, public transit requires certain characteristics such as origin and destination demand, density of residences and employment, and walkable destinations in order to work well. It’s possible to add service to areas, but that does not mean it will be cost effective or well patronized.

Additionally, the South County expansions don’t move the needle for Rhode Island. One of the biggest challenges facing the area is of course the economy. In the Greater New England there are basically two main sources of wealth generation: New York and Boston. To the extent that you are in New England and are tied to one of those markets, you are generally succeeding. To the extent that you are cut off from them, you are struggling. The Providence area struggles because it is not as able to tap into the Boston economy given the just far enough distance between them by both car and transit.

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Guest Post: Building streets

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Future Friendship Street

Jewelry District resident Lewis Dana sent us some photos and a bit of snarky commentary to go with them. Enjoy.

I don’t know much about building a new street, either. …

Based on this shot of the continuation of Friendship St., early on you dig large holes, drop in these storm sewer pipes and cover them up with dirt. If all goes well, the sanitary lines go in at the same time. Let everything settle for a year or so.

Then you come back, dig more trenches for water, gas and electric services, back fill them and pave everything over.

Then some wise guy asks, what about telephone and cable? So you send in new teams of workers who barricade the streets, jackhammer trenches through the new macadam, install cable and phone, and patch everything back up.

If you’re being fastidious, you make a smooth job of it. Judging by the bomb cratered condition of Chestnut Street, into which someone sawed a fiberoptic trench about 7 years ago, that is a faint hope. Traces of that havoc remain to this day all along Chestnut, which is not on the Mayor’s 40-million dollar street repair map.

When the dust settles, mostly on everything in our apartment, is it too much to hope that the Grafitti Patrol will stop by and remove the tags with which the contractors have embellished every sidewalk in the neighborhood?

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Guest post: Parking reform should start at the State House

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The State House with a lot less parking. Photo courtesy of the Providence Department of Planning & Development.

Reader James Kennedy writes about reforming parking at the State House. Follow James on Twitter: @TransportPVD.

The State House is a great place to start reforming Providence’s parking crisis. The great map that Jef put up last April shows that the State House contributes considerably to the overwhelming of our downtown space by surface parking.

From the outset, 10% of State House parking lot space should be repurposed as a vegetable and flower garden, which could be run in private-public partnership with the Southside Community Land Trust. Repurposing State House parking will highlight one of the city’s best reasons for optimism, the Land Trust’s Lots for Hope program. Produce from the raised beds could be used to fill food banks around the state, or could be sold at Rhode Island’s farmers’ markets to return a modest revenue boost to the state budget.

The remaining spaces should no longer be free. Legislators and other State House employees should receive a transportation stipend, equal to the amount of money currently being spent on paving a parking spot for them to use. Those who continue to drive to the State House would not lose money, but they will at least be aware that parking is a fiscal choice. But many others will choose to save money by carpooling, taking transit, or biking to the capital. The plan will be revenue neutral to taxpayers, in that it will simply repurpose funds already being spent.

Parking demand will decrease if this plan is put in place, and as it does, the state should gradually remove more spaces to increase the area of the garden. As in Denmark, where cities have committed to remove 2-3% of parking spaces per year to reduce their carbon footprints, the State House could set a per year goal for removal of spots, with the eventual culmination of a parking lot half the size of the current one. The gradual pace of change will allow for other transportation options to be developed.

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Guest Post: Exit-stential Problems for Federal Hill & Smith Hill

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Dean Street interchange with Routes 6/10 center, Federal Hill to the left, Smith Hill to the right.

Reader James Kennedy writes about establishing better non-automobile connections between Federal Hill and Smith Hill. Follow James on Twitter: @TransportPVD.

Providence has too many highways, and I wouldn’t be an opponent of removing some entirely. But if we’re going to have a highway system snake through the city, let’s at least make it useful. The Dean Street exit ramps should be removed, in my opinion, and a multi-modal boulevard should replace the highway-let that the street currently is.

As a bike commuter, I hadn’t really experienced rush hour traffic on Routes 10 & 6 until I had the recent occasion to sit motionless on a school bus with the kids I was transporting from Nathan Bishop Middle School to Del Sesto M.S., for a basketball game. It seemed an oddly short route to have to be taking a highway, I thought, and seeing how traffic was, I thought I’d probably could have gotten the kids faster there on bikes moving down local streets.

The Dean Street exit can’t possibly be doing any motorists any favors. It’s only a stone’s throw from several other exits in Smith Hill, Federal Hill, and Downcity.

When we design a highway, it’s supposed to be fast. With so many exits, we’re encouraging people to use the highway for local travel, and that’s probably a big part of why speeds at rush hour are so slow. If you’re only going from Downcity to Federal Hill, or from Smith Hill to Federal Hill, you don’t need a highway to get you there. The nearest I could possibly imagine someone needing to have an exit on the highway from Downcity would be somewhere near the edge of town along the Cranston border. Having all these tiny little exits scattered everywhere makes the highway useless for it’s stated purpose.

If that was the only problem to having exit ramps on Dean Street, maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal. But the ramps are huge, and eat up prime real estate in Federal Hill that could be developed. With a generous tree sound buffer planted between it and the highway, the remaining land from the former exit could become a new section of historic Federal Hill, designed to be walkable and small business-friendly.

Once, on a whim, my partner and I took Exchange Street from where it intersects with Sabin, to see whether it was a bikeable route. It was beautiful until we got to Dean Street, and then it felt almost like there was nowhere to go. Exchange Street could be carried through this new neighborhood as a bike-friendly route, and bring Federal Hill a tourist-friendly connection to the convention center area.

Providence doesn’t have all that many options for traveling between Smith Hill and Federal Hill, so Dean Street is also a prime target for change because of how important it could be to connect multimodal transportation between the two as yet alienated neighborhoods. Dean Street is wide enough that it could maintain a car connection north-south over the highway, while bus-only lanes and protected bike lanes could be put into a new Dean Street bridge to speed traffic for non-car users.

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Guest Post: Snow removal, “not my job.”

A reader submits photos and commentary on common snow removal issues along North Main. Just a little extra effort would save hundreds of people from huge inconvenience and safety concerns.

Here are some snowy sidewalk pics that illustrate the not-my-job mindset. I am glad the long sidewalk along North Burial Ground on North Main Street has been getting plowed lately, although when the snow is deep enough to bog down their little tractor, they simply fuggedaboutit. But how hard would it be to drive that little tractor a few yards farther along and clear the traffic island at Cemetary Street?

NBG_Cem

On a side note, this intersection is a fine example of inappropriate high-speed design. Oh yeah, there is a stop sign, but most drivers scoot right on through and merge into N. Main at full speed, with heads turned left to check approaching traffic as if they were at a highway on-ramp instead of a crosswalk. Also, note how the sidewalk on the traffic island is where the plow driver who clears the lawyer’s lot dumps snow.

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I guess it a dead-serious matter of turf and good fences between Parks Dept and Public Works, (or RIDOT? Or the Feds? N Main is US 1, you know) that keeps the Parks Dept. tractor from plowing all the way to Branch Ave. It might take 90 seconds and cause huge paperwork and budget issues.

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Reader Submission: No joy at the DMV

FAILThough Governor Chafee made a great show of improving the DMV early in his term, we still hear no end of complaints about the agency. Below is an email a reader sent us about her recent experience:

I spent an hour on hold where a single sentence repeats over and over and over just to get to a voicemail box of an employee in the communications department?

I need my vehicle title returned. There seems to be an online database that I could use to accomplish this task, but can’t access without paying a huge amount of money. Why restrict it? So many of your customers could be using online tools instead of perpetually unavailable personnel to solve their problems.

I paid to register my car and my title was sequestered. Now I need to pay to recover it? And waste hours of my time to get no service whatsoever?

Your service is so terrible that dealing with you is the most dreaded errand of any errand. I’d rather spend a day cleaning toilets with a toothbrush than visit your offices. At least I would know that my goal was something that could be accomplished.

You have a new building, and NOTHING has improved except for your lobby. You should have stayed in Pawtucket, hired 10 more people for customer service, and 5 people to put any service possible online for FREE.

How have your experiences at the DMV been of late? Better? Worse? You wish you were dead so you’d never have to go there again?

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Barry Schiller: On the Draft New 4-Year TIP – Public Hearing April 26

Providence Viaduct

Underneath the Providence Viaduct. Photo © RIDOT

Barry Schiller, a retired Rhode Island College math professor, is a long-time member of the State Planning Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee. He also was on the RIPTA Board of Directors 1995-1999.

The draft 2013-2016 RI Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a plan to spend about $1.1 billion, has been released by Statewide Planning. In print, it is at least 120 pages! This is because it includes a description of the process, analysis of financing, environmental justice, air quality, its various program components (such as bridge, Interstate, transit, safety) and a detailed compilation of the various funding sources. Despite some uncertainty about future legislation, it essentially assumes level Federal funding.

My overall assessment is that it basically continues current policies: improving infrastructure through the bridge (about $42 million/year) and pavement management programs ($30 million/yr); finishing major projects; traffic safety (e.g. striping, signalization $31 million/yr;) transit ($46 million/year.) There is little system expansion.

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