THE PROVIDENCE BELTWAY: In 1947, the Rhode Island Department of Public Works (RIDPW) devised plans for a freeway system for the Providence-Pawtucket metropolitan area. The initial proposal called for the construction of "Relocated US 1" (I-95) and "Relocated US 6" (I-195) - two freeways that were in the Federal-aid highway program - but did not include plans for a beltway.
During the mid-1950's, Governor Dennis J. Roberts convened a "Governor's Highway Safety Committee" comprised of RIDPW and economic development officials. The committee's report, "Rhode Island Roads," introduced plans for a "Relocated Route 5" beltway from Warwick to Pawtucket. The state submitted the beltway to the Federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) for inclusion in the Federal-aid highway program. In 1955, the BPR included the beltway in the Interstate highway system, but with some changes. The freeway was to be constructed along a longer route via the RI 5 and RI 116 corridors, and be extended into Attleboro, Massachusetts, providing a complete bypass of the congested Providence-Pawtucket area.
The following two reports from 1959 argued for and against the early completion of I-295:
In October of that year, the RIDPW released its accelerated five-year program for highway construction, but did not include I-295 in its plan. Instead, the RIDPW emphasized the completion of I-95 through Providence and Pawtucket. Officials feared that early completion of the I-295 beltway would speed the departure of businesses from the immediate Providence area, just as Route 128 (Yankee Division Highway) drew industrial development away from the city of Boston in the early 1950's.
In response, the Arthur D. Little consulting firm followed with a report advocating the early construction of I-295, calling it "more important" than I-95 for industrial development. The report recommended that the $36 million beltway be completed by 1964. Upon completion, I-295 was to "open up the best industrial sites in the state, and make a great contribution of the integration of the labor market."
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: In 1960, The Providence Journal reported that planning for I-295 began with the decision to build the highway on a new right-of-way, rather than to incorporate the existing RI 5 and RI 116 into the highway. The RIDPW preferred to keep these parallel routes in order to leave a route open during construction, to minimize community disruption, and eventually provide parallel "service roads" for I-295.
The route of I-295 through mostly undeveloped land attracted potential developers, and some of these developers (with the cooperation of planning boards) tried to take advantage of this situation. In 1962, the RIDPW announced the tentative route for I-295, but did not provide specific alignment information. Soon thereafter, the planning commission in Cranston approved a 108-home subdivision in the general path of I-295. The developer of the Cranston subdivision eventually sold his land to the RIDPW, but not before profiting handsomely.
Right-of-way acquisition and design work began in 1964, and construction began one year later. The different sections of I-295 were completed in the following order:
August 1967: EXIT 10 (RI 122) to Rhode Island-Massachusetts border February 1968: EXIT 9 (RI 146 / Louisquisset Expressway) to EXIT 10 October 1968: I-95 to EXIT 3 (RI 37 / Lincoln Expressway) July 1970: EXIT 3 to EXIT 4 (RI 14) May 1971: EXIT 4 to EXIT 6 (US 6 and RI 6A) January 1972: EXIT 8 (RI 7) to EXIT 9 June 1975: EXIT 6 to EXIT 8
The highway was constructed with four lanes (two in each direction) from I-95 in Warwick north to EXIT 5 (US 6 / Dennis J. Roberts Expressway) in Johnston, and with six lanes (three in each direction) from EXIT 5 north to the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border. The two carriageways are separated by a wide variable median. At EXIT 5, ramps also were built for the unbuilt I-84, which was to extend west of I-295 into Connecticut.
LEFT: This 1971 photo shows I-295 looking north and east at EXIT 9 (RI 146 Expressway) in Lincoln. Work continues on the unfinished I-295 south of this interchange in the foreground. RIGHT: This 1976 photo shows I-295 looking north at EXIT 5 (US 6 / Dennis J. Roberts Expressway) in Johnson. Note the incomplete ramps that were to connect to I-84, which was to continue west of this interchange toward Hartford. (Photos by Rhode Island Department of Transportation.)
According to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), I-295 carries approximately 40,000 vehicles per day (AADT). This compares with average volumes of 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles per day when I-295 was completed in the mid-1970's. Even with this increase in traffic, much of the development potential along I-295 remains unfulfilled.
IMPROVEMENTS TO I-295: In 1999, the RIDOT released plans for a new EXIT 4A (Scituate Avenue) in Johnston. The new interchange, in conjunction with the widening of Scituate Avenue and Shun Pike, will provide improved access to a nearby landfill while keeping heavy trucks off local streets. It will also require the location of three families and five businesses.
The RIDOT announced plans recently to rehabilitate roadways and bridges along the length of I-295. In his testimony before Congress in 2001, RIDOT director William Ankner estimated that this rehabilitation would cost $30 million.
REOPENING THE SOUTHBOUND REST AREA: In 1997, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management announced plans to convert the southbound rest area on I-295 (which had closed in 1989) into a visitor center and create a regional entry point and parking for the Blackstone River Bikeway. The rebuilt facility, which includes a visitor center, mini-food court, and comfort facility, was opened on January 9, 2006. The project also included the construction of a one-half mile access trail for hikers and cyclists, as well as the restoration of a water gate on the Blackstone Canal at Ashton Dam.
This 2002 photo shows the northbound I-295 at EXIT 7 (US 44 / Putnam Pike) in Smithfield. The experimental mileage-exit tabs date back to the highway's completion in 1975. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
SOURCES: "Rhode Island Roads," Rhode Island Department of Public Works (1956); "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); "Record of Decision: Improved Highway Access to the Environmental Management District, Johnston and Cranston, Rhode Island," Federal Highway Administration and Rhode Island Department of Transportation (1999); "On Route 295, Rhode Island Will Join World of Rest Stop Retailing" by Edward Ortiz, The Providence Journal (12/03/2003); "Member and Firm News," Currents-AIA Rhode Island (January 2006); Surface Transportation Policy Project; Michael Kendricks; Douglas Kerr; Dan Moraseski; Chris O'Leary; Alexander Svirsky.
I-295 shield by Ralph Herman. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.