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Plans to Widen Rtes. 295 and 95

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Highway planners consider widening Routes 95, 295

There is no immediate plan and there is no money for the work, but officials say Route 295 needs work soon.

BY BRUCE LANDIS

Journal Staff Writer | Wednesday, August 4, 2004

PROVIDENCE -- State planning and transportation officials are quietly considering adding lanes to more than 30 miles of Route 95 and Route 295.

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If built, the projects would be the first expansion of Rhode Island's interstate highway system in decades, officials said.

They would widen a section of Route 295 that drivers say is regularly congested, but they would also widen sections of Routes 95 and 295 that the Department of Transportation's own consultants say are not congested now.

There is no money allocated for either expansion, and officials emphasize that the plan, "Transportation 2025," looks ahead 20 years. Any construction would be delayed for years, they say, by the need for studies and design work. But the proposal's insertion into the formal planning process makes it a candidate for eventual design and construction, and supporters want quick action on at least the Route 295 expansion.

State records show the proposals originated last winter in committees of the Office of State Planning, one of them chaired by Robert Murray, vice president of AAA Southern New England.

The road-widening proposals surfaced inconspicuously in the spring, as a single line deep in a list of recommendations for the state's long-range transportation plan, which concerns everything from bicycles and pedestrians to highways and mass transit.

The potentially enormous highway proposal appears just after a longer item urging that the state "manage" traffic accidents, lest they interrupt traffic flow, and just before an item suggesting consideration of "signage readability and placement." The recommendations were the subject of two public hearings attended by a handful of people on July 22.

The proposals would widen 24 miles of Route 95, from Exit 8 in Warwick to the Connecticut state line, and 9 miles of Route 295, from Exit 6 in Johnston to its junction with 95 in Warwick.

Both sections would be widened from four lanes to six lanes, or to three lanes each way. That would make the full length of both highways at least six lanes wide.

"I was a vocal proponent" of adding the road-widening recommendations to the plan, "and the state planners agreed," Murray said. He said Route 295 needs immediate action. "I think they need to start working on it right now," he said, "because it's a problem right now. I-295 needs to be done immediately."

Supporters, including Murray and James Capaldi, the director of the Department of Transportation, acknowledge that there may be no immediate need for the Route 95 expansion.

However, they point to Connecticut's plans to widen its section of Route 95 from Branford to Rhode Island as a reason for proceeding. The Connecticut DOT, which has been considering the road-widening project for several years, says it wants to begin design and environmental studies next year, and begin construction in 2008.

Henry Sherlock, who represents the state's construction industry, also backs the Rhode Island road-widening project. "The problem is already there," he said, and alternative transportation systems "are not going to get rid of these cars."

A DOT study, meanwhile, says the plans would widen parts of both highways that are not congested now.

A map in a study by DOT consultant Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., dated Feb. 10, shows that several miles of Route 95 near the Connecticut border are not congested.

Meanwhile, the remainder of Route 95, including the section from Exit 8 to the Massachusetts line, which would not be widened, is congested, the map indicates.

Similarly, the map shows that the section of Route 295 that would be widened is partly congested, but partly not congested.

DOT Chief Engineer Edmund T. Parker said the plan makes sense.

"It would be a lot less expensive per mile" to widen the southern part of Route 95 than to widen it in the dense urban areas it crosses farther north.

He also said that rapid development along Route 95 is increasing traffic density in the southern part of the state, where the widening would take place.

Widening Route 295, Parker said, would also indirectly reduce congestion on Route 95 in the Providence metropolitan area by offering drivers an alternative.

Parker also said that the relocation of Route 95's intersection with Route 195 in Providence, now under construction, will rebuild 1 1/2 miles of Route 95, improving traffic flow through the city.

He added that the DOT will look at alternatives to roadbuilding when it studies the proposals.

Capaldi said that the last time the state did similar road-widening projects was when the DOT widened Route 95 in Cranston and Warwick during the late 1970s, and when it expanded part of Route 195 in East Providence from four to six lanes in the early 1980s.

"THIS IS A BIGGIE," said Barry Schiller, a Sierra Club representative. "This could be hundreds of millions of dollars. If we are spending hundreds of millions on this, we aren't going to have it to spend on anything else." Widening the highways, he said, "should be a last resort."

Schiller said his group spotted the tiny reference to the huge proposal. So far, it is responding cautiously. Schiller said environmentalists "are not against evaluating the need" for the highway expansion. However, he said, "if we're examining expanding the highway, we should be examining the alternatives," too, such as mass transit and freight rail and barges to replace truck traffic. He said the impact the project would have on the environment should also be made clear.

The Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group, or RIPIRG, didn't know about the proposal, said spokeswoman Kate Canada. In the past, she said, "We definitely haven't been fans of widening highways."

She challenged one idea underlying the plans, saying that "widening highways does nothing for traffic congestion. It just makes people think there's going to be less traffic congestion," encouraging them to drive more.

Besides adding more lanes, road-expansion strategies used elsewhere in the country have included building another highway nearby to absorb some of the traffic, and "double-decking" the congested highway by building another highway above it.

If Schiller's guess about cost is in the ballpark, it could have fiscal implications for the state. Last year, officials said lack of money threatened to delay or even halt major highway projects, such as the ongoing relocation of Route 195 in Providence. The projects also include a new Sakonnet River Bridge, rail improvements and an access highway for Quonset Point.

To help finance more than $600 million in construction, the Carcieri administration began using a new form of borrowing, committing future federal highway aid to pay for current projects. The cost of just one of those projects, a new Sakonnet bridge, is estimated at about $110 million.

High costs would make it more likely that the road-widening would be done in sections.

"I don't imagine putting this all under construction at one time," Capaldi said.

WOULD THE PROJECT really cost "hundreds of millions of dollars," as Schiller suggested?

It is notoriously difficult to estimate the cost per mile for highway building, state and federal officials say, because the topography and other conditions -- what's underground, population density, the presence of historically significant areas and wetlands -- vary from site to site.

Parker said the DOT can't address the question because the agency has no basis for cost estimates yet. "It isn't even a project yet," he said. A spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, which usually finances 80 percent of highway projects, said the agency does not have a dependable average cost per mile.

One unknown that could dramatically affect the cost is bridge work, an expensive item. Rhode Island officials wonder whether the extra lanes could be squeezed onto, or under, at least some existing bridges. If not, the bridges would need to be rebuilt and the price tag would jump.

The Connecticut DOT has concluded that it will have to rebuild about 78 bridges, both overpasses and underpasses, when it widens Route 95 there.

From The Providence Journal

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