Elorza: RIDOT request to halt South Water Street bike lane ‘dubious at best’

Updated at 5:55 p.m. on Oct. 7.

MAYOR JORGE O. ELORZA said Thursday the city will finish construction on a two-way bike lane along South Water Street despite a call from the R.I. Department of Transportation to halt the project pending review of compliance with a 1999 agreement between the department and the city. / COURTESY CITY OF PROVIDENCE

PROVIDENCE – The city is moving full speed ahead with construction of a bike lane along South Water Street despite a warning from the R.I. Department of Transportation that continuing the project could leave the city on the hook for more than $4 million. 

Mayor Jorge O. Elorza in an emailed statement on Thursday called the 1999 agreement upon which RIDOT is demanding the city stop project construction “extremely dubious, at best” and said the city will proceed as planned with the bike lane. A majority of the construction, which replaces one of two vehicle lanes with a two-way bike lane along a half-mile stretch of South Water Street, is finished. The only remaining piece of the project is to install “nonpermanent delineators” separating drivers, cyclists and walkers, according to Elorza. 

The city will proceed with the installation of this critical safety component and will complete a full review of the RIDOT complaint to determine if the project requires any material changes,” Elorza said.

RIDOT Director Peter Alviti in an Oct. 6 letter called for Elorza to stop construction pending a review by state and federal agencies of the project, warning that failure to do so could leave the city on the hook for $4.4 million in federal and state funds spent on road improvements in 1999.

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The bike lane construction began in August, though plans were first announced as part of Elorza’s Great Streets Initiative plan in early 2020, which aims to make the city safer and more friendly to all forms of transportation, including cyclists and pedestrians. While the plan included multiple public information sessions, mailed notices, and opportunities for community feedback, some area businesses raised concerns, contending they were not notified of the project. Traffic congestion along a key entry point to Interstate-195 were also named as a reason for opposition in a letter to the city signed by half a dozen local businesses, Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, various news outlets have reported.

The city has maintained that adequate outreach to area property owners, as well as the state, was offered since the plan was announced. The bike lane project was also modified to assuage some business concerns, holding off on raised speed bumps and making adjustments to sections of the road adjacent to key loading docks. 

But controversy over the project has now caught the attention of RIDOT, which accused the city of violating a 1999 agreement in which state and federal highway funds were used to pay for upgrades to South Water Street. Per the terms of the contract, any additional changes “other than for transportation purposes” would require state and federal approval. 

“The changes observed are not in conformance with project specifications,” Alviti stated in the letter.

Alviti called for the city to stop ongoing construction until RIDOT and the Federal Highway Administration determine whether the bike lane is “acceptable and consistent with the 1999 project.” If the city does not stop, it could risk having to pay back $4.4 million of the state and federal funds spent on the street in 1999, the letter stated.

In an emailed response to request for comment on Thursday afternoon, RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin reiterated the agency’s request that the city stop project construction.

“As noted in our letter to the city, failure to comply with this request may place the city in jeopardy to reimburse the state and FHWA for the costs of the 1999 project, approximately $4.4 [million],” St. Martin said.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

UPDATED to include comment from the R.I. Department of Transportation.

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