Final carbon reduction plan spends more, but still leaves critics disappointed

By: - November 17, 2023 5:26 pm

I-95 South in Providence. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) on Wednesday submitted its finalized carbon reduction plan to the federal government — one that shifts more than $5.9 million initially allocated to highway congestion to other modes of transit like bikes, buses, trains.

Changes to the carbon reduction plan come after transit and climate advocates, along with Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha, criticized the initial plan for prioritizing reducing highway congestion. Despite the changes, Neronha still believes RIDOT needs to make bigger commitments.

“This is not the transformative leadership necessary to meet the Act on Climate mandates on time and at least cost to Rhode Islanders,” Neronha said in a statement to Rhode Island Current Friday. 

Attorney general blasts RIDOT carbon reduction plan

In response, RIDOT Director Peter Alviti touted that his department was alerted Friday that Rhode Island ranked 11th in the nation in a survey for the best use of federal infrastructure funds “to achieve resiliency and equity.”

“This was a survey by the very highly respected Natural Resource Defense Council, an international advocate for environmental sustainability,” Alviti said in a statement to Rhode Island Current.

Wednesday was the deadline for states to submit their carbon reduction plans to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which has 90 days to review it. Rhode Island is slated to get more than $35.7 million over five years for projects listed in the plan.

Funding comes from the federal government’s bipartisan Infrastructure law passed in 2021. Rhode Island is set to receive a total $576 million of federal funds between 2022 and 2026 to improve its transportation infrastructure.

This is not the transformative leadership necessary to meet the Act on Climate mandates on time and at least cost to Rhode Islanders.

– Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha, in criticism of RIDOT Carbon Reduction Plan

Overall, $17.9 million — over half of Rhode Island’s designated Carbon Reduction Program funds — are now committed to projects RIDOT said could encourage more Rhode Islanders to consider not traveling by car.

One of those investments is $1.5 million in sidewalk accessibility improvements at Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) bus stops — something that was not in the original carbon reduction strategy.

“Public transportation has an enormous impact on the state’s environmental goals and workforce development,” a RIPTA spokesperson said in an email Thursday. “Increasing funding, public transit options, quality of service and amenities will assist us in meeting these targets.”

RI Transit Riders Co-Chair Patricia Raub also welcomed the sidewalk improvements, but said she hopes they include regular maintenance — especially in the winter.

“People, including the city and the state, kind of plow snow so that it’s in front of bus stops,” she said. “People have to climb over tiny little mountains to get to their buses.”

RIDOT committed $6.6 million toward bike path construction and improvement.

But Bike Newport Executive Director Bari Freeman, who also serves on the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC), said this bike funding is still directed at bike path preservation, not expanding infrastructure. 

“That’s likely not leading to more people shifting to biking,” she said.

RIDOT spokesperson Charles St. Martin argued otherwise. “A well-maintained bike path will encourage more usage,” he said.

St. Martin added that beyond the carbon reduction plan, RIDOT contributes $30 million annually through its RhodeWorks program toward bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

One of those projects is the Henderson Bridge that connects East Providence and Providence. St. Martin said it will have a bike path, which is scheduled to open Nov. 27.

“It is important to remember that the $35 million outlined in the report is but a small fraction of the $7 billion, 10-year RhodeWorks program,” he said.

Other commitments in the finalized carbon reduction plan include $1.5 million toward the Providence Ferry Landing and $8.9 million for the “Rhody Express” — a project RIDOT said would increase commuter rail service between Providence, T.F. Green International Airport, and Wickford Junction from 10 to 25 runs per day.

TAC vice chair John Flaherty, who is deputy director of GrowSmart RI, said RIDOT’s plan needs a commitment to the state’s Transit Master Plan (TMP). The TMP calls for shifting to cleaner transportation alternatives like frequent buses and light rail.

“We must take better advantage of our compact, densely populated state,” he said.

Neronha also criticized the plan for continuing to promote highway improvement as the best way to reduce emissions.

No Carbon Reduction funds are being used for highway expansion, according to the plan. But it does say traffic flow improvement  “will have net benefits for emissions reduction.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.