Beginning in the 1980s, Rhode Island devised an aggressive reversal of its urban decay and shrinking rail network as Boston’s 1970s reinventions started to take hold. The state pushed ahead with major urban-renewal efforts, business repositioning, equal rail and highway funding, and modernized transit service. Through these hand-in-hand efforts, a strong urban corridor of local, regional and national links from Boston to Providence and points south started to emerge. However, the corridor has remained overshadowed, particularly after a few recent academic and professional Boston–Washington (Bos-Wash) rail concepts that shift the primary rail corridor between Boston and Washington westward, away from Providence and southern Rhode Island. The shift would reward regions and states, such as Connecticut, that have pursued a suburban auto-centric approach well into the 21st century. In turn, the process punishes Rhode Island after 15 years of rail-oriented advancement and three major breakthroughs: 1) a massive transit-oriented development (TOD) cluster tied to a new modern train station, 2) the first direct rail-to-air connection in the Bos-Wash corridor and 3) a new park ’n’ ride big-box hybrid accessible by train.
Providence’s urban progress vs. Hartford’s suburban practice
As Boston started to shift course in the 1970s, Rhode Island and Connecticut both found themselves in a local economic mega-boom soon afterward. However, both states and their respective capitals of Providence and Hartford took very different paths.
Providence decided to work with its neighbor to the north. As Boston modernized and expanded its transit network, removed highways and built up existing urban communities, Providence did the same. In contrast, Hartford tried to differentiate itself from Boston by expanding highways, removing rail lines and converting train stations into new bus centers. Hartford did not intend to work with Boston but instead tried to eclipse it. The Connecticut capital’s now infamous “Hartford 1995” sketch outlined the city’s and the state’s intentions at the time. The bird’s-eye view sketch focused solely on downtown Hartford and featured a new, large collection of expanded highways and skyscrapers that were meant to supersede Boston’s modern Back Bay business district and transit-network interventions. However, the Hartford plan was baseless, with no funding or resources to support the vision within an already struggling city of 100,000, less than one-sixth the size of Boston. Once the 1991 recession hit New England, Boston’s and Rhode Island’s pragmatic urban ambitions held together and would begin to bear fruit in the mid-1990s. In contrast, Hartford’s 1995 suburban vision crashed after a few small office towers were constructed, leaving behind an auto-oriented fabric and damaged urban rail system.
After the recession, Boston and Providence built off their strong urban policies of the 1980s, with the Ocean State developing major urban advancement along the Massachusetts–Rhode Island corridor that benefited both states; Hartford was still trying to recover well into the 21st century. The sudden Connecticut crash and slow recovery eventually broke the state in half, where the southwestern section of Connecticut started to become an extension of New York City’s growing web of urban influence, while the rest of the state continued to flounder with suburban experiments. During this same period, Rhode Island made considerable advancements concerning urban rehabilitation, rail expansion and suburban innovation. The state’s extensive progress makes any recent Bos-Wash speculation in Connecticut very problematic, especially when Rhode Island’s advances are put into full view.
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Providence’s Capital Center TOD and modernized rail station
In the 1980s, Providence developed a smaller modern train station that was well equipped to handle the changing conditions and potential of the city. For decades, Providence had a massive rail yard that disconnected the downtown area with the state capitol to the north. As a result, the city and state decided to concentrate its rail network within a set of below-grade tracks similar to a subway stop in Boston and New York City, thus transforming a once-inaccessible landscape between the capitol and downtown into a massive collection of buildable urban parcels with direct rail access. In time, Boston’s T commuter train would extend into Providence, creating a new, affordable rail link between the two cities. Eventually weekend service was added in the 2000s, creating a new dynamic that bolstered TOD in both Providence and Boston. Since then, the Capital Center region between downtown and the state capitol has become a massive enclave of offices, residences and open space, generating the largest satellite TOD node in New England alongside one of the city’s restored small rivers, a landscape condition unseen in Boston that adds to the overall strength of the Boston-Providence region. In addition, Providence’s old train station was elegantly redeveloped for new uses. Instead of clinging to sentimentality that would hinder the modern advancement of the city, Providence recalibrated its new urban livelihood by repositioning its transportation while making the most of its historic architecture. This was a common tripping point for New England cities, which typically stuck to the norm and kept the train stop within their historic facilities. Many of these stations were awkwardly outside the city center or reinforced barriers downtown, thus leading to various cases of fragmented urbanism where existing city life is today disconnected from the main rail station. Providence tied the station to the city, thus creating the massive cluster of TOD now seen in Rhode Island’s vibrant capital.
T.F. Green Airport—The first direct rail-to-air terminal link in the Bos-Wash
A major breakthrough in New England intertransportation access came at the end of 2010, when, for the first time within the Bos-Wash corridor, a flight could be reached by rail from Boston and Providence through a one-seat ride on the T commuter rail system. The new link transformed T.F. Green into Boston’s second airport, easing congestion and expansion pressure at Logan Airport while using existing underused air facilities within the Bos-Wash corridor. The service has gradually expanded since 2010, and the link has become a strategic gateway for residents, businesses and institutions from Boston to Providence seeking cost-effective air service. In time, T.F. Green could become a dedicated Amtrak stop, but unlike Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, and Baltimore’s airports along the Amtrak Bos-Wash corridor, T.F. Green would be the first air terminal directly linked to the rail corridor. Both Newark and Baltimore require an intermediate shuttle between the Bos-Wash rail corridor and their terminals, a feature which, by itself, is enough to prevent passengers from using the service because of the hassle of moving and shifting luggage two different times instead of one. The T.F. Green system cuts out the intermediate step, where any traveler along the Bos-Wash corridor can walk directly into an air terminal, a major advancement that still remains out of sight and mind for most.
Wickford Junction—Big-box access for urban citizens
Finally, earlier this year, Rhode Island developed another breakthrough, creating a new combination park ’n’ ride/suburban Wal-Mart big-box shopping center that is accessible by train. On the surface, alongside the highway decongestion benefits of the new node, the big-box configuration may not seem like a major urban advancement; however, the project will have a major impact on the various cities in the corridor. For decades, being unable to reach the suburban big-box outlet within an urban metro was the last major argument for having a car in the city. Small urban centers cannot support a big-box store on their own. At the same time, major retailers such as Wal-Mart, furniture-maker IKEA and outdoor-equipment retailer Cabela’s have massive suburban store configurations and shopping patterns that do not work well within a dense urban environment. Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction resolves both issues by creating a link for urban citizens to access traditional big-box retailers while allowing the same companies to access new urban markets without creating suburbanism in the city center. The Wickford, Rhode Island, project is a benefit to both the suburban node and urban center by allowing them to complement each other. Alongside providing new access to Providence and Boston from the suburbs, making a Wal-Mart accessible to citizens in Providence negates any lasting need for private automobiles and additional big boxes in Rhode Island’s capital. Under this setup, everything is within reach of the urban dweller, particularly with the rise of “shop and ship” practices—where urban shoppers no longer transport any major item back from the store but instead have it shipped to their house. This process has become particularly prevalent with IKEA. The company has developed its own transit connections from the city to its fringe metro locations and then allows customers to have their items shipped directly to their homes via the company’s private transport. This new shopping process alongside the Wickford Junction typology is a perfect model for other nodes along the Boston-Providence corridor and the entire Bos-Wash system, where a simple rail link between a big-box retailer and an urban center has a dynamic effect on each side.
These urban breakthroughs in the Boston-Providence corridor by themselves negate any speculation about future Bos-Wash paths further inland and away from Rhode Island’s major rail corridor. The Ocean State’s 15 years of urban and rail advancement should solidify its standing in any future Bos-Wash planning. Altogether, the last remaining open-ended area for the Bos-Wash lies between the southern end of Rhode Island and New York City, thus narrowing the possibilities to two: 1) an intensive rail modification across various independent towns and villages in Connecticut or 2) a path through the densely packed municipalities of Long Island that requires a sound link a fraction of the size of London-Paris’s marquee Chunnel. Regardless of which corridor is built up over time, this setup will recognize the value and progress of Rhode Island’s past rail-oriented success and permanent placement in the Bos-Wash.
On July 9, 2012, Amtrak officially updated its Next-Gen Northeast Corridor to include Providence. It’s a step in the right direction, but just a step. Under the new plan, Rhode Island’s existing high-speed line running south from Providence would be passed over for a speculative Connecticut path reminiscent of the Air Line—a fragile, winding elevated corridor that limited usage and constantly changed hands until ceasing in 1937 for better connections along the shoreline. This terrain and history is coupled with central Connecticut’s current suburban policies, which, during the course of Amtrak’s update, decided last month to remove another rail line in Greater Hartford in the very corridor Amtrak outlined for its high-speed rail service. It’s in keeping with Hartford’s rail-travel reduction and removal since the 1980s, when the city’s Union Station rail center was converted predominately into a bus terminal, leading to the 2000s, when an additional rail line was removed, relegating existing Acela and Regional rail service from Boston to the Connecticut shoreline. Hartford is now removing the latest stretch of rail for a bus-only highway, in complete contrast to Rhode Island, Connecticut’s shoreline and Long Island, which have reinforced their rail development and urban infrastructure in the last 15 years. The BosWash North is still in need of a regional plan that takes into account each state’s and municipality’s objectives concerning rail-oriented development. —N.C.
1-7: Providence’s Capital Center TOD cluster between the city’s domed train station and downtown
8-10: New direct rail-to-air terminal connection at T.F. Green Airport without a shuttle in between
11-13: Boston’s T runs into Wickford Junction, a new big-box shopping complex anchored by Wal-Mart