2015-08-06 / Around Town

Thames, Spring Street Input Still Sought

By Tom Walsh

William R. Riccio Jr., Newport director of public services, has a message for those of you who wish improvements promised for Lower Thames and Spring streets were ready for use the day before yesterday:

Think of the project as though it were a nine-inning baseball game.

And, he quickly adds, “Think of it as being in the early innings of a nine-inning baseball game.”

Right now, Riccio said, the project, formally known as the Thames and Spring Streetscape Improvement Project, is in the hands of VHB, (Vanasse Hangen Brustling, Inc.), the Providence consulting engineering firm that is handling specific design and public input elements of the project under a $302,000 contract paid for with city funds. VHB has 23 offices along the East Coast, including, besides Providence, New England offices in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“It’s not something that can be done overnight,” Riccio said. “Right now we are still in that whole public participation part of the process.” He added that the rebuilding of Broadway, recently begun under a $5.8-million contract with the Cardi Corporation, took two-tothree years to reach construction.

That timeframe may or may not pertain to the Thames and Spring project. “Every project has its own idiosyncrasies,” Riccio said.

On June 23 the city hosted an open house at the Edward King Senior Center for people interested in the project. “We’re still trying to get as much input as possible,” he said. “At that last meeting, people showed up who had not attended prior meetings. As the months go by, people are learning more about the project. Every time we have another public meeting, we get the word out.”

John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, an organization that works with both public and private organizations seeking economic growth, said about 65 people attended the meeting. “We thought it was very well attended by folks in the community,” Flaherty said. “People were brutally honest” in sharing their opinions, he said.

Those who are interested in the Thames and Spring streets project can view preliminary drawings at thamesandspring.com.

The drawings depict areas with flowering trees, cafĂ© tables, decorative lamps, and “blue glass” block pavers on sidewalks, among other additions that, collectively, could turn nondescript neighborhoods into showplaces. Riccio said it would be a mistake to assume that all of these areas will look exactly like the drawings when the project is complete.

“They are sketches of some things that have been thought about right now,” Riccio said. “Some of these things may move forward. This is why we have such a deep public outreach effort at this point in the process. We want as many people as possible to get involved in the process. Give us your suggestions on what works, and what does not work. Tell us what you think should be included, or not included.”

The website offers an opportunity for public input. Among several responders who’ve left messages there, removing utility poles and burying the wires seems to top the agenda. “I propose that the twisted electrical lines be buried or otherwise neaten them up…that is the main eyesore on Lower Thames and I drive it every day,” said one.

Picking up on that theme, another writer offered that upgrading Lower Thames without removing poles would be “like putting lipstick on a pig.”

Grow Smart Rhode Island’s Flaherty said a few attendees at the June 23 meeting were “very, very vocal” about their opinion that utility wires should be buried. He said that VHB is “sharpening their pencils” to determine the cost of burying wires, which was done years ago on upper Thames Street. He also said, though, that the cost for doing that could be “very expensive” for both the city and for individual shopkeepers who would have to pay to connect to underground utilities.

“In the end,” Flaherty said, “the city will be presented with options.”

Meanwhile, Riccio said the next task is to arrange a meeting with the nine-member advisory committee comprised of residents and business owners on the two streets. He said another situation that will have to be watched is in Washington, D.C., where Congress has been unable for political reasons to enact transportation funding legislation.

“It’s a complicated matter,” the public services director exclaimed. He said he hopes the financing for the Thames and Spring streets project can be assembled in a similar way to what was done for the Broadway project—a combination of city, state, federal and grant money.

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