On the Road to Providence for answers to I-81

Iway Project, Providence, Rhode Island.

Dena Oâ??Brien sits in the Metro Café alongside the Providence River enjoying a chicken wrap during her lunch hour. She has spent much of her professional career as a court reporter working in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. She has lived in other cities across the country, but enjoys calling this working class New England city home.

She smiles when asked about the reconstruction of I-195 through downtown. â??I donâ??t think when youâ??re reconstructing a highway you can make it that enjoyable for the commuter, ya know,â?? said Oâ??Brien. But, she admits now that the majority of the road work is complete her view is changing. â??At first it wasnâ??t great, because it caught off a lot of the exits that used to go up to the highway, to 195. But, now theyâ??ve made it work. I like it a lot. The way it is now.â??

Itâ??s now an eight lane state of the art bridge called the IWay. It carries nearly 200,000 cars a day as they make connections to the bustling Interstate 95 that delivers commuters from Boston to New York and back. The bridge sits about a half mile down river from where the rusting old 195 span. Once traffic was cut off to the old route, the elevated highway that bisected Providence was torn down revealing 40 acres of land ready for development.

That land is now owned and controlled by the 195 Commission. â??The highway moved as the third major redevelopment project in Providence, Iâ??m not sure Syracuse has that,â?? said Executive Director Jan Brodie. â??It started in the late 1970â??s started with Amtrak making it high speed and efficient. It caused a rethinking of the tracks and the hub station. They moved the tracks and the station. They then daylighted the River to make it more attractive.â??

â??All of that led up toâ?¦ok thereâ??s a highway that also bifurcates the city â?? just as your highway 81 does,â?? explained Brodie. â??Once moved, the railroad tracks. The daylighted river, it opened up and we said what a gem of a city that is cut in half or cut in the thirds by this highway.â??

So they went through a lengthy public process that culminated with the decision to take down the highway and move that bridge down the Providence River. Phillip Kydd, Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Dot, said several problems were remedied.â??It would straighten out this wicked curve. It would give us a very streamlined road approach that would align. It would give a better approach to an interchange that has been greatly improved because of it.â??

â??A nice side effect of that was that we reclaimed land,â?? said Kydd. â??It opened up about 40 acres of land that now became developable and so there were a lot of good reasons to do it the way it was done.â??

Kydd explained how the aging bridge had outlived its useful life after being built like so many other urban highways in the 1950â??s. The structure was being held up by timber in its final years. There was no choice, but to rebuild. The choice to relocate was tougher, but is finally starting to pay off.

The second in charge at the Rhode Island DOT encourages Syracuse to look as far as it can into the future to model and predict traffic needs. â??One of the things that is difficult in our business but we try to do is looking at not just the problems of today but what are you going to be faced with five years from now ten years from now,â?? said Kydd.â?? What are traffic volumes going to be in your city? Try to factor those in the best that you can.â??

Now the 195 Commission is working on attracting developers to those vacant parcels. Several acres adjacent to the river will be parkland and recreational space. A footbridge will be built over the footings of the old 195 bridge.

People enjoying lunch in the Metro Café are worried that the land will only end up being a giant park. Thatâ??s not what Providence needs downtown. These business people say the community needs jobs, retail and residential. They want the property tax base to expand.

The 195 Commission is now marketing 19 acres that have clear title and environmental permits. Jan Brodie said the commission is tasked with what is development of the future. â??How do we market this land so it appeals to the new employee and growing companies. Live, work, play is the buzz word,â?? said Brodie. â??The City of Providence, Syracuse also has institutions, as well as medical and educational. Providence has that in spades. And, so promote that. How do we capture our students and keep them here?â??

One way is to enjoy that same downtown Café which has plenty of room for more workers at the lunch hour. Sitting right along a waterfront park where they can exercise, enjoy entertainment and still get back to the office.