$27M grant could finish Providence’s bike lane network, but Smiley noncommittal

THE CITY OF PROVIDENCE recently received a $27 million federal grant for its urban trail network of protected, two-way bike lanes, such as the one pictured on Empire Street in downtown Providence. However, Mayor Brett Smiley hasn't committed to finishing the network laid out by former Mayor Jorge Elorza, and his administration is still reviewing city infrastructure before deciding how to spend the money. / PBN FILE PHOTO//ELIZABETH GRAHAM
THE CITY OF PROVIDENCE recently received a $27 million federal grant for its urban trail network of protected, two-way bike lanes, such as the one pictured on Empire Street in downtown Providence. However, Mayor Brett Smiley hasn't committed to finishing the network laid out by former Mayor Jorge Elorza, and his administration is still reviewing city infrastructure before deciding how to spend the money. / PBN FILE PHOTO//ELIZABETH GRAHAM

PROVIDENCE – A new, $27 million federal grant could hypothetically cover the cost to finish former Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s ambitious “urban trail” network.

But after the squabbles over some of the 40 miles of protected bike lanes built before Elorza left office, Mayor Brett Smiley is pressing pause. All safety and public infrastructure upgrades – from bike lanes to speed humps – are under review by his administration, with no plans to start spending the grant until that review is completed, according to Robert Azar, the city’s acting director of planning.

The funding, announced on Feb. 1 through the U.S. Department of Transportations Safe Streets and Roads for All Grant program, is specifically intended for Providence’s urban trail network. That is likely how Elorza, who applied for the grant before he left office, would have used it.

Elorza championed his plan for a 78-mile network of connected, protected bike lanes despite pushback from some businesses and even a lawsuit threat from state transportation officials over lanes on South Water Street.

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But Smiley has taken a more moderated stance on the bike lanes: he says he’s not against them, but he also says he’s not going to move ahead without more review and community input. Lack of funding had also been a problem. The city spent or allocated $8.5 million on the 40 miles of lanes built, but did not have funding identified to finish the other 38 miles when Elorza’s second term ended.

Smiley has also told PBN previously that he’s open to removing some of the bike lanes that have proved particularly unpopular, if the data justifies it.

Smiley was not available to be interviewed for this story but issued an emailed statement in which he pledged to “continue to work closely with our state and federal partners to conduct a thorough review of grants, plans and current infrastructure installments to ensure they are best serving the needs of residents.”

Azar was similarly vague about what the city’s public infrastructure review entails. The scope still hasn’t been defined, but the number of people using the bike lanes, pedestrian and traffic accidents and speeding are potential data sets to consider, he said. Azar also declined to say how long the review would take or when the city plans to start spending the grant money.

The U.S. DOT grant program gives recipients up to five years to spend the funding. The program broadly focuses on pedestrian and roadway safety, so it’s also possible the city could spend some or all of its money on upgrades unrelated to bike lanes, such as traffic lights, crosswalks and speed humps, Azar said.

City Council President Rachel Miller said she would be upset if none of the funding went to the urban trail network, but she didn’t think that would happen. There’s already wide community support for elements of the bike lane plan, including a redesign of Broadway that would improve the safety of the existing, unprotected bike lanes. 

Miller also hoped some of the funding would be used to build new bike lanes, creating the citywide, connected network of paths that Elorza envisioned.

“We don’t want to have a situation where we have unconnected streets that are unsafe to navigate,” Miller said. “The ideal is a city that embraces folks coming in and out of different neighborhoods in all different ways.”

To that end, Miller also supported using funds for safety upgrades unrelated to bike lanes, noting that the cycling lanes were one of several tools used to support the broader goal of safe streets for all types of transportation.

Kim Clark, the owner of Rhody Craft LLC, a gift shop on Hope Street, thought bike lanes worsened, rather than improved, safety. After seeing how a trial run of a temporary bike lane on Hope Street in the fall affected area businesses, traffic and parking, her fears for Elorza’s plan solidified. The Hope Street bike lane is one of several in Elorza’s plan that has not been funded.

“I am for safe streets, but not ill-placed bike lanes,” Clark said. “They should not be placed in areas where they will be conflicting with bus routes, delivery routes or commercial districts.”

Clark added, “It would be a shame to spend money on more bike lanes when we’re still begging to have sidewalks fixed.”

Some small businesses revolted after a one-mile bike lane was installed along South Water Street in 2021, changing the two-lane, one-way street into a one-lane road. They also complained about traffic and parking problems and a loss of business.

Sharon Steele, president of the Jewelry District Association, was one of the most vocal opponents of the South Water Street lanes. She denounced the entire network as an “abject failure.”

Steele was glad that Smiley’s administration was reviewing the bike lanes before considering any expansions. Steele also hoped the review would allow for input from businesses and residents to reshape the proposal into a “collaboration rather than assault.”

Elorza while in office routinely defended the research that prompted his plan and the outreach to local property owners, which included mailings and a mix of in-person and online forums. Smiley, however, has acknowledged previously that more opportunity for community input was necessary.

City Councilman John Goncalves, who also backed the South Water Street bike lane despite opposition, agreed that the city was “entitled to do this review” before spending a major sum of money, which also requires a 20% match of city funds or in-kind contributions.

“I don’t equate due diligence with being against the bike lanes,” he said of the mayor’s review plan.

Still, Goncalves said he plans to be an “important voice” in advocating for keeping the South Water Street bike lane in place, along with other safety and access improvements for his constituents.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Kudos to Brett. Sharon Stone is correct: spending $27 million on bike lanes is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Miller and Goncalves are both clueless and should be voted off the Council for wasting taxpayer dollars. If you need a bike lane, you shouldn’t be riding a bike.