October 25, 2017 | Feature
Stories about Highways Past, or That Never Were
Look around our part of New England, and you’ll see artifacts of the past scattered throughout the landscape. Some are quite distinctive, such as the old railroad bridge on the Seekonk River, or the Superman Building in downtown Providence. Some are memorialized, like the route of British retreat from Concord during the Revolutionary War. But peer a bit closer, and you’ll notice the numerous other structures, pathways, and patterns that have lingered—not explicitly cherished, preserved, or acknowledged, but a subtle part of everyday life regardless. Such is the case with Rhode Island’s abandoned highway projects.
The closest stub is just down the street from Brown—go east on Angell Street to the waterfront, and you’ll find yourself on the Henderson Bridge, a massive six-lane highway bridge that rockets across the water into East Providence. Suddenly finding yourself on an expressway is odd enough, but in East Providence, the mystery deepens: A large “ALL TRAFFIC” sign ushers vehicles onto an off-ramp less than a mile after the expressway begins. Where the main highway should continue, a strip of gravel lies dormant, passing underneath the overpass of the intersecting street. Squirrels dash by, rather than cars, headed toward the narrow strip of trees that have grown to bracket the gravel path. Follow them, and you can trace the expressway’s intended route to US-44, a surface road, on the border with Massachusetts.
This half-alive highway is an artifact of Providence’s participation in the freeway-building craze of the mid-1900s. By the end of World War II, many of the United States’s city centers were dilapidated—a result of the Great Depression and subsequent redirection of industry toward the war effort. A host of factors, including white flight and legislation encouraging sprawl, emptied the middle class out of downtown areas, exacerbating the decline. While cities desired “urban renewal” of these areas, the idea of “downtown” had changed from a mixed-use place to live, work, and play, to a spot exclusively devoted to work and leisure. Such a shift toward suburban life strained transit infrastructures, since they were designed for movement within a city, rather than to and from it. The highway, whisking commuters past congested surface roads, was seen as the future.
With federal funding from the Eisenhower Interstate System, Rhode Island’s Department of Public Works designed a network of expressways that would crisscross the state, including the Henderson Expressway. The proposed highway would have cut through the heart of Fox Point, splitting off from I-195 before snaking north along the shoreline and crossing the river via Henderson Bridge. The bridge was completed in 1969, before construction of the freeway. By then, however, the negative impacts of running highways straight through cities were being felt across the nation, as neighborhoods boxed in by viaducts and overpasses withered. The Henderson Expressway project stalled and was eventually canceled as support waned, leaving only an oddly-built bridge in its wake.
Other parts of Providence weren’t as lucky. Construction of the US-6 and RI-10 expressways west of Federal Hill acted as a noose around Olneyville Square, the multicultural nexus in South Providence then known as the city’s “Second Downtown.” Traffic only worsened after these expressways were constructed, and a 1964 study found that a third of stores and companies in the area went out of business between 1954 and 1959. Visit Olneyville today, and the scars of the 6-10 connector project are still visible—traffic clogs the streets because of a missing ramp from RI-10 to US-6, and the landscape’s empty lots pose a striking departure from the bustling commercial activity of Federal Hill and downtown, only a couple of blocks away. The negative impacts of the freeways in Olneyville caused Rhode Island to truncate or cancel projects in Newport, Johnston, and Kingstown, scattering ghostly interchanges and expressways throughout the state.
These spectres don’t have to be permanent, however. Drivers from Providence to Boston might note the odd 270-degree pivot that I-95 makes in Canton, Massachusetts, to join MA-128. This strange alignment is a remnant of the 1948 plan for the Southwest Expressway, a monstrous eight-lane highway that would have plowed through Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Jamaica Plain into downtown Boston. But already reeling from housing demolition, business closures, and blight from just-finished freeways such as I-93 and the Mass Turnpike, residents revolted. Ordering a moratorium on freeway-building inside Boston, Massachusetts, Governor Francis Sargent initiated the 1972 Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR), a landmark reconsideration of Massachusetts’s transit planning and freeway systems. This review resulted in deprioritization of new freeway projects, and a renewed emphasis on mass transit, including commuter rail and subways, to serve the growing city’s needs. Once again, Boston was home to a revolution—this time, of urban planning—and the BTPR served as the template for major re-evaluations of transit planning in almost every other major American city. For the first time, local community input, as well as environmental concerns, factored prominently into planning, and federal aid began to fund mass transit projects as well as highways. On the Southwest Corridor, important rail links for Amtrak’s long-distance routes and MBTA’s Orange Line and commuter rail were constructed, alongside bike paths, community gardens, and parks. The green spaces that were built instead of the freeway unified the neighborhood, instead of fragmenting it, and are still in heavy use today.
In Rhode Island, similar projects are underway to undo sins of freeways past. Today, sports fields, parks, and a bike path lie where the Henderson Expressway would have sat. Nearby projects to relocate I-195, reconnect India Point Park, and build a pedestrian bridge across the Seekonk finished a couple years ago. Approaches to the Pell Bridge in Newport are being rebuilt, transforming a space-wasting and business-draining freeway stub into a surface roundabout integrated with Newport’s street grid.
But perhaps most importantly, the highways in Olneyville are being rebuilt. While they won’t totally disappear, they are being reengineered with the lessons of the past 50 years in mind. New bike paths and pedestrian walkways will improve access, and the highways will be slimmed, beginning to reconnect Olneyville with surrounding communities. Soon, one more ghost will be banished to memory and photographs, and hopefully in its place, a neighborhood will regrow.