On Nov. 15, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation submitted a revised version of its Carbon Reduction Strategy to the Federal Highway Administration. If the plan is approved, RIDOT is eligible to receive an estimated $35.7 million from the federal government to spend on carbon reduction projects over four years.
The revisions resulted from an October public comment period. The original proposed plan was met with backlash from community organizations, which criticized its emphasis on highway expansion, The Herald previously reported.
The plan’s current version includes $20 million to be used to encourage a shift from cars to other modes of transportation. Revisions also increase funding for “bike path construction and improvement” from $1.5 million to $6.6 million, according to the press release. The submitted version also adds $1.5 million “to support RIPTA by providing better access to bus stops and (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance at these stops.”
“These are positive changes that will provide the necessary actions for RIDOT to accomplish its part of the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Public input made this plan better,” said RIDOT Director Peter Alviti in a press release announcing the revisions.
While representatives from both the Acadia Center, a non-profit dedicated to climate solutions, and Grow Smart R.I., an organization focused on “neighborhood revitalization, environmental stewardship and economic opportunity,” believe the new plan is more effective, they still share concerns about its ability to help the state meet the goals outlined in the 2021 R.I. Act on Climate.
“Overall, I’m glad to see that RIDOT responded to the public’s demand for more investment in non-car infrastructure,” said Emily Koo ’13, senior policy advocate and R.I. program director of the Acadia Center. “But the core issues of not meeting the Act on Climate targets, nor measuring project level emissions reductions, remain.”
While Acadia was “glad to see that there’s significantly more funding for bike paths, it is still for resurfacing and preservation and maintenance of existing bike paths and not (establishing) new bike infrastructure,” Koo said.
John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart R.I., is not sure the plan successfully tackles the shift from single-occupancy vehicles toward bikes “when you’re (only) improving upon an existing piece of infrastructure” rather than funding new biking structures, he said.
“Many advocates would agree that the DOT doesn’t have the best public engagement strategies. And in this case, the process got started very late and only after several of us complained that there was no process,” Flaherty said. According to him, increased public engagement would have made the plan more effective in reaching state goals.
According to the plan, the strategies outlined in the plan are “just the first step in a larger process undertaken as part of EC-4’s actions to meet the goals and requirements of the 2021 R.I. Act on Climate.”
“A complete plan to decarbonize Rhode Island’s transportation sector is being developed through a multi-agency, stakeholder-driven process to meet the state’s more ambitious 2025 Climate Action Plan update,” the plan reads.
For Koo, RIDOT is “putting the onus of the transportation sector planning and analysis on the state’s 2025 climate strategy.”
“What they have effectively done is given up,” said R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha in a radio interview on The Matt Allen Show. “The idea is not to give up. It’s to do things.”
Neronha’s suggestions included the incentivization of green vehicles within the DOT. He pointed out that the state has a Transit Master Plan, proposed in 2020, that has yet to be implemented.
“There are practical things that can be done and the DOT is ignoring them,” he said. “In fact, they’re ignoring their own plans.”
Flaherty believes the state must focus on infrastructure changes to its transportation system if it wants to push residents to switch their habits and opt out of using personal transportation. He urged RIDOT to increase public transportation in the state with extended hours of availability.
“We (understand) that the kinds of changes that need to be made are difficult. Many of the kinds of changes that we’re advocating for are going to require behavior changes and that’s inherently difficult,” Flaherty said. “But we’re also facing (climate change), an existential threat that requires difficult decisions to be made.”
For Neronha, these behavioral shifts are not impossible.
“We give up far too often in state government,” he said, but achieving our state climate goals is “not a pipe dream if we commit ourselves to it.”