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This 2008 photo shows the eastbound East Providence Expressway (I-195) at the new signature span crossing the Providence River. The eastbound lanes opened in 2007, while the westbound lanes opened in 2009. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

THE WASHINGTON BRIDGE: In 1923, the Rhode Island General Assembly established a "Washington Bridge Commission" for the construction of a new bridge over the Seekonk River. Increasing automobile traffic on the existing two-lane, steel-truss swing bridge between downtown Providence and East Providence resulted in delays on either side of the span. Frequent openings on the bridge, which was built in 1885, often exacerbated the delays.

The Washington Bridge Commission adopted a design for a new six-lane bridge that was to be constructed just north of the existing span. From the Commission's report:

The centerline of the bridge proper in the proposed location extends from a point on the north side of Tockwotton Street about ten feet west of Ives Street (in Providence), to a point 150 feet west of the point where Brow Street intersects Taunton Avenue (in East Providence). The proposed bridge is in general symmetry with the center of the draw span… this symmetry not only results in a pleasant appearance, but also greatly simplifies the design and construction problem, and consequently is of value in decreasing the cost of construction.

The Army Corps of Engineers approved the Commission's design for a drawbridge with a horizontal clearance of 100 feet. Flanking the drawbridge on either side were to be three concrete arches with spans of 105 feet each, and adjacent to these spans on the shores, there were to be three concrete arches with spans of 89 feet each. The open-spandrel construction method that was used for the six arches was designed to minimize the cost of materials.

For the final design, the Commission employed the services of two New Yorkers - consulting engineer Clarence W. Hudson and architect Carl L. Otto - who embodied the "City Beautiful" movement of the early 20th century. Stone facing on the arches, rounded bridge piers and other ornamentation added beauty to the bridge's symmetrical design.

After two years of construction, the Washington Bridge opened to traffic on September 25, 1930. The $3.5 million cost of the bridge was financed through the sale of bonds.

This 1932 photo shows the Washington Bridge soon after its completion. Today, this span serves the eastbound lanes of I-195, US 6 and US 44 over the Seekonk River. It is slated for demolition as part of the I-195 reconstruction. (Photo by Washington Bridge Commission.)

EARLY EXPRESSWAY PLANS: In the years immediately after the Washington Bridge opened, officials in Providence constructed Fox Point Boulevard, an early version of a limited-access highway. The divided highway, which was renamed George M. Cohan Boulevard in later years, controlled access through the use of entrance and exit ramps, but instead of grade separation, the design utilized median U-turn ramps.

True planning for an east-west expressway did not begin until 1945, when the Rhode Island Department of Public Works (RIDPW) devised plans for an expressway network to meet postwar traffic demands in metropolitan Providence. When the RIDPW released its findings in 1947, it estimated that the cost of the system (which consisted of I-95 and I-195) would cost $52 million.

The "Crosstown Route," which was to carry the US 6 designation (and later the I-195 designation), was described in the state report as follows:

The consultants recommended a crosstown expressway, with full limited access, just south of the central business district of Providence. Its terminals would be (at I-95 to the west) and at Benefit Street to the east.

The crossing of the Providence River would be on a relatively low-level fixed bridge. Connections to both Benefit Street and South Main Street would be provided, as well as an overpass onto Fox Point Boulevard. Other improvements would be made in the vicinity of the Point Street Bridge to relieve congestion in this area. By making the new crossing north of the Point Street Bridge, it would be possible to construct a bridge much more economically than at any other location, and none of the operating costs of a moveable bridge would be involved. The value of riparian rights above the location of the proposed bridge is considered small, and these rights are to be included along one side of the river, under plans of the consultants, for improved parking facilities.

The one-mile-long "Crosstown Route," including the "Fox Point Grade Elimination" and the "Providence River Bridge," was to cost $8.7 million. It did not include any improvements to either Fox Point Boulevard or to the Washington Bridge. The "Relocated US 6" was to open by 1953.

However, highway funds were hard to come by in the immediate postwar years. One 1953 proposal suggested the construction of a toll road from Providence to the Fall River-New Bedford area. The "Interstate Study Committee," a commission headed by highway officials in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, proposed a "Providence Connection" linking downtown Providence with the "Cape Cod Expressway" (another toll road) in Fall River.

Finally, in 1955, voters authorized a $30 million highway bond issue that increased the state's debt load by 75 percent. With $70 million in state and Federal funds available, the RIDPW embarked on its highway building program, beginning work on I-95, I-195 and other highways. When President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law creating the Interstate highway system and its 90-10 (Federal-state) funding mechanism in 1956, the RIDPW developed aggressive plans to not only build the "Crosstown Route," but also extend the expressway into southeastern Massachusetts.

This artist's conception from 1947 shows an elevated section of the proposed East Providence Expressway (then called the "Crosstown Route") at EXIT 1 (Downtown Providence / Dyer Street). This section from I-95 to the Providence River is being relocated, and the section shown here will be demolished soon after the 2010 completion of the relocation project. (Drawing by Rhode Island Department of Public Works.)

CARVING A ROUTE TO EAST PROVIDENCE: Born as "Relocated US 6," the East Providence Expressway was designated I-95E in 1957. Two years later, the expressway was re-christened I-195 for its entire length through Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The right-of-way acquisition process for I-195, which began soon after President Eisenhower signed the Federal highway act into law in 1956, was by no means easy. Initially, Federal highway officials rebuffed RIDPW plans to have at least three lanes in each direction from I-95 east to the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border. Federal officials wanted I-195 to shrink from six to four lanes east of EXIT 6 (Broadway) in East Providence, and then grow to six lanes after crossing the state border. Eventually, RIDPW highway officials got the Federal officials to relent to the full six-lane configuration. The freeway was now estimated to cost $14 million.

Construction of I-195 through Providence began in 1956. This elevated section, which comprised the original "Crosstown Route" from the 1947 RIDPW plan, cut downtown Providence off from the Jewelry District and the waterfront. It also resulted in the demolition of scores of businesses in the Jewelry District. When this one-mile-long section was completed in November 1958, a new controlled-access route was provided from Fox Point Boulevard west to a temporary terminus at Pine Street. Provisions were made at the western terminus for an eventual "Y-interchange" connection to I-95 (North-South Expressway). The interchange with I-95 was not completed until the fall of 1964.

Work began on I-195 through East Providence in 1957. Before construction, some tried to make a quick profit by buying and selling land near the proposed route, while others tried to take advantage of the impending demolition by burning down buildings. Community leaders formed a "freeway watch" to stem the decline in the area around the freeway, and to make sure that construction crews limit neighborhood disruption. Even with these efforts, some 300 families, 172 homes, and 32 businesses were displaced, and two schools (each built in 1862 and 1891) were demolished.

The East Providence Expressway was completed from the Washington Bridge east to EXIT 8 (Wampanoag Trail / East Shore Expressway) on December 15, 1959. By August 1960, construction crews extended I-195 across the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border.

LEFT: This 1959 photo shows the East Providence Expressway (I-195 and US 6) nearing completion just east of the Washington Bridge in East Providence. US 44 splits from the expressway at this point. (Photo by Rhode Island Department of Public Works.) RIGHT: This 1976 photo shows the East Providence Expressway (I-195 and US 6) across the Providence River in downtown Providence. Plans are being developed to realign this section of I-195, and in the process, promote new development and add parkland. (Photo by Rhode Island Department of Transportation.)

THE SECOND WASHINGTON BRIDGE: Congestion on the six-lane Washington Bridge - built to pre-Interstate standards - created bottlenecks along I-195 in Providence and East Providence. The lack of breakdown lanes only made the situation worse. Officials from the RIDPW sought Interstate funding to finance a new Washington Bridge, and to construct new approaches. In March 1964, the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) approved the construction of a parallel span just north of the existing bridge.

The promise of 90 percent Federal financing came with strings attached. The BPR initially rejected a plan supported by local officials to duplicate the concrete-arch design of the original span, opting instead for a steel-girder bridge at the site. After considerable discussion, including a statement from Pietro Belluschi, dean of the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the BPR relented and approved the arch design in late 1964.

However, by early 1965, Federal officials began to have second thoughts on the arch design amid spiraling cost estimates for the twin span. In August of that year, RIDPW director Angelo Marcello offered a compromise design that was to use concrete (instead of steel) beams, and was to simulate (rather than duplicate) the arch design. The new compromise design, which cost $200,000 more than the steel-girder design, but saved $900,000 over the "authentic duplicate" design, was approved by the BPR in January 1966.

The second Washington Bridge opened to traffic in November 1968. With the opening of the new five-lane westbound bridge, the original span was reconfigured to permit five lanes of eastbound traffic. Two lanes in each direction of the bridge are used for traffic entering and exiting I-195, while the remaining three lanes in each direction are used for through traffic.

FINISHING I-195 THROUGH RHODE ISLAND: At the same time construction proceeded on the second Washington Bridge, work crews converted the existing Fox Point Boulevard to Interstate standards by widening the roadway, improving the ramp connections and removing the median U-turn ramps. A new pedestrian bridge was built over the highway to connect downtown Providence to India Point Park. This final section of I-195 was completed in December 1968.

These 2003 photos show the eastbound East Providence Expressway (I-195) through the construction zone on the Washington Bridge (left photo) and approaching EXIT 7 (RI 114 SOUTH / East Shore Expressway) in East Providence. (Photos by Jim K. Georges.)

REUNITING THE CITY WITH THE WATERFRONT: In 1989, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) began work on an environmental assessment for the I-195 corridor through Providence. The focus of the study was to evaluate alternatives to rehabilitate or improve the existing alignment. Early in the study, the non-profit Providence Foundation submitted plans for a "Hurricane Barrier Alignment," a new alignment along the Providence Hurricane Barrier (erected after the 1938 hurricane) about one-half-mile south of the existing I-195 viaduct.

Two years later, the RIDOT began work on an environmental impact statement. The state submitted the following three alternatives for the study:

  • Reconstruction of existing viaduct: This alternative was developed to represent the least-cost (and "no-build") alternative. It included the rehabilitation of the existing six-lane viaduct, but did not provide for any operational improvements.

  • North Alignment: This alternative called for the construction of an eight-lane elevated freeway constructed parallel to the existing facility. While it was to provide some operational improvements, it was to maintain the substandard interchange between I-95 and I-195.

  • Hurricane Barrier Alignment: This alternative called for the construction of a new eight-lane freeway along a southerly ("Hurricane Barrier") alignment, a new bridge over the Providence River, and a new interchange between I-95 and I-195 south of the existing interchange.

In 1993, the RIDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) selected the Hurricane Barrier Alignment as the preferred alternative. The two agencies issued the following statement on their "Record of Decision," from which excerpts are given below:

The reasons for selecting the Hurricane Barrier Alignment include the following: it improves highway safety, reduces impacts on historic districts, allows for the fullest implementation of the city's Old Harbor Plan, has a net positive impact on India Point Park, provides improved access to Rhode Island Hospital, and incurs to least impact to traffic during construction.

The Hurricane Barrier Alignment provides the best transportation improvements to relieve present and future traffic demands on Interstate 195. The proposed alignment provides the best configuration from a safety and capacity standpoint. The safety improvements afforded by the Hurricane Barrier Alignment include the following: all seven existing substandard weaves are eliminated; access to and from both Rhode Island and Women and Infants hospitals is greatly improved; and the existing substandard interchange between I-95 and I-195 is eliminated. The North Alignment eliminates all but two substandard weaves in the I-95 interchange, but does not improve access to the hospitals.

As a result of the improved safety characteristics, the projected number of accidents over a five-year period for the Hurricane Barrier Alignment is 655, substantially less than either of the other alternatives considered: half that of the Reconstruction Alternative (1,156 accidents), and two-thirds that of the North Alignment (963 accidents). The new interchange and associated extended transportation benefits are a major reason for the cost differential between the Hurricane Barrier Alignment and the North Alignment alternative.

The alignment of the Hurricane Barrier Alternative is largely dependent of the existing alignment; therefore, the Hurricane Barrier Alternative is the easiest alternative to construct without affecting traffic flow on the existing I-195. Three lanes in each direction can be maintained throughout the construction period. The other alternatives considered would require extensive detours and lane closures, and would result in substantial congestion and delays during the estimated five-year construction period.

Of the alternatives considered, the Hurricane Barrier Alternative is the most compatible with the city of Providence's Old Harbor Plan. The Old Harbor Plan, adopted by city ordinance in 1994, is an element in the Comprehensive Plan. The Hurricane Barrier Alternative allows for the most complete implementation of the Old Harbor Plan among the three alternatives. The Old Harbor Plan itself will have a number of positive benefits, including the following: improved waterfront access in the form of pedestrian walkways along the shore of the Providence River from Crawford Street to the Hurricane Barrier; improved water transportation; increased public park land; and economic development alternatives. Along with the redevelopment of the surplus right-of-way, the Old Harbor Plan allows for the reuniting of the downtown central business district with the Jewelry District.


Implementation of the Hurricane Barrier Alternative and the Old Harbor Plan results in a net positive benefit to historic resources in the city. Removal of the existing I-195 on the west side of the Providence River substantially reduces the noise and visual impact on both downtown and the Jewelry District. Although implementation of the Hurricane Barrier Alternative requires the acquisition and demolition of three buildings on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it reduces the overall length of Interstate 195 through the College Hill historic district from 3,200 feet to 2,000 feet, and moves the highway from between 500 and 1,000 feet from the highest concentration of historic structures in the district. Coordination efforts indicate that the Rhode Island State Historic Preservation Office (RISHPO) and the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission support the implementation of the Hurricane Barrier Alternative and the Old Harbor Plan.

The Hurricane Barrier Alternative has a net positive effect on India Point Park. Construction will require the acquisition of a narrow strip (21,382 square feet) along the northwest edge of the park. As mitigation, the elimination of the existing Gano Street on-ramp allows for 51,908 square feet of additional park land (a net increase of over 30,000 square feet). The existing narrow pedestrian overpass will be replaced with a 50-foot-wide landscaped pedestrian bridge. This connection will greatly improve the connection between India Point Park and the Fox Point neighborhood. Although not considered a mitigation, removal of the ramps also makes possible the creation of a landscaped parking area on the five acres immediately northeast of the park, under the I-195 viaduct at Gano Street. The ramp modifications in the vicinity of India Point Park will change India Street from a little-used street to a relatively busy street. The increased traffic will occur on India Street primarily during the morning and evening rush hours, which are not peak usage times for the park.

This map shows the relocated I-195 and reconstructed I-95 through downtown Providence when the project is scheduled for completion after 2010. Redeveloped areas in the path of the old I-195 are shown in orange, while new park and recreational areas are shown in green. (Map from Rhode Island Department of Transportation, I-195 Relocation web site.

THE "LITTLE DIG" THROUGH PROVIDENCE: Preliminary work on the relocation of I-195 began in 1997 with the rehabilitation of the westbound Washington Bridge over the Seekonk River. Crews moved onto the eastbound Washington Bridge in 2001 to provide temporary rehabilitation work on the existing span, and to lay the groundwork for a replacement eastbound span. Although the existing span is structurally sound, a new span is needed to handle increasing traffic loads, as well as to comply with new seismic standards.

The centerpiece of the I-195 relocation project is a new "signature" steel-arch span furnishing eight lanes of traffic over the Providence River. The 1,250-foot-long bridge features a 400-foot-long "double-arch" main span. (Specifically, the "Nielson-Lohse" bridge design features a triple-barrel steel tied network arch with intersecting hangers.)

RIDOT planners initially studied an HOV alternative through the project area, but passed on the idea after discovering that the HOV lanes would reduce traffic by approximately two percent. The section is expected to carry 200,000 vehicles per day (AADT), approximately 15 percent above the existing traffic load (and twice the existing design capacity).

The first part of the project - a connection from northbound I-95 (new EXIT 19) to eastbound I-195, including the signature arch span - opened to traffic on November 4, 2007. The RIDOT expects the newly relocated I-195, with its 1.6 miles of new roadway and 15 new bridges, to be fully open to traffic by 2010 (three years later than originally scheduled). By 2013, the remainder of the project - five miles of new service roads and city streets, 20 new acres of urban development, nearly one mile of new river walkways, several acres of new park land, and a new dam - should be completed. The development potential includes 1.6 million square feet of office and retail space, 400,000 square feet of institutional space, 700,000 square feet of multipurpose space, a 300-room hotel, housing for 620 families, and parking garages for 5,000 cars.

Officials estimate the cost of the project at $525 million, including the cost of the work on the Washington Bridge. Bonds are financing the cost of the project.

BEFORE… This 2002 photo shows the eastbound East Providence Expressway (I-195) prior to its relocation. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

... AND AFTER: This 2007 photo shows the signature "I-Way" arch bridge over the Providence River under construction. The eastbound lanes of the bridge opened five months after this photo was taken. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

SOURCES: "Reports of the Washington Bridge Commission," Rhode Island State Legislature (1932); "Expressway System for Metropolitan Providence," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1947); "Rhode Island Roads," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1956); "Two Road Links to Open," The New York Times (11/22/1959); "Industrial Development and Highway Planning in Rhode Island," Arthur D. Little, Inc. (1959); "A Highway Program for Rhode Island," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1959); "The Interstate Highway System in Rhode Island: A Force for Change in Rhode Island" by Dieter Hammerschlag, Brian K. Barber and J. Michael Everett, University of Rhode Island (1976); "Transportation 2010: Ground Transportation Plan," Rhode Island Department of Transportation (1992); "Record of Decision: Improvements to Interstate 195, Washington Bridge to Interstate 95," Federal Highway Administration and Rhode Island Department of Transportation (1997); "In the 1960's, Highways Tore Through the Cities" by Jonathan D. Rockoff, The Providence Journal (8/30/1999); "Relocation of I-195 Threatens Local Businesses" by Eric Brazer, The Brown Daily Herald (10/26/1999); "Costs for Route 195 Relocation To Rise," The Associated Press (10/14/2001); "Relocation of I-195 in Providence," Rhode Island Department of Transportation (2001); "The Drive of the Future: Rerouting 195" by Bruce Landis, The Providence Journal (8/10/2004); ""Piece by Piece, a 1,240-Foot-Long Bridge Takes Shape" by Bruce Landis, The Providence Journal (1/18/2005); "Accelerating on 195" by Bruce Landis, The Providence Journal (6/06/2007); Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc.; The Providence Plan; Michael Kendricks; Dan Moraseski; Chris O'Leary; Alexander Svirsky.

  • I-195 shield by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.
  • HOV sign by C.C. Slater.

EAST PROVIDENCE EXPRESSWAY LINKS:

EAST PROVIDENCE EXPRESSWAY VIDEO LINKS:

NORTH-SOUTH EXPRESSWAY CURRENT CONDITIONS:

THE EXITS OF METRO BOSTON:

  • I-195 (Rhode Island) exit lists (eastbound and westbound) by Steve Anderson.

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