The Route to Nowhere
Six years ago 10 Rhode Island communities got the good news they had been awarded a total of $2 million as part of a national program called Safe Routes to Schools. The grants would provide new sidewalks, bike racks, signage and electronic speed warnings at public schools across the state. But the projects quickly stalled and never got off the ground. This week, Jim Hummel finds out who dropped the ball and talks with one parent who hasn’t give up on his local project.
Bike racks outside an elementary school in Barrington, along with a dedicated bike lane to get there.
A special crosswalk bisecting a busy road leading to another elementary school in East Providence.
And a speed warning sign just before a middle school in Cranston.
They are all part of the national Safe Routes to School program, funded largely by the federal government and overseen by the state of Rhode Island. It provided money for signage, sidewalks and in some cases education.
Pimental: ``Basically, the goal was to provide a sidewalk so that the parents and kids could walk safely on the side of the buses exiting the property.’’
Jeff Pimental’s son was a student at Myron Francis Elementary school in East Providence when he helped put together an application for a Safe Routes grant in 2010. At the side entrance to the school, pedestrians, bikers and buses converged a little too closely for comfort before and after school.
Pimental: ``It was where the school buses exited the property. There always seemed to be a bottleneck, and a lot of kids and parents were dodging buses on the way out of the property, especially in the wintertime when the snowbanks became real high.
An initial round of grants had been approved in 2007, with the work completed over the next several years. In 2010, Myron Francis and nine other schools across the state got the good news that they, too, had been approved for a second round of projects totaling nearly $2 million.
Six years later, work still has not begun at any of the schools. And - we found - it’s still a long way off.
Alviti: ``The federal government sent a person down to the school at one point after we won the grant and we toured the property and it seemed like everything was smooth sailing. Little did I know it was going to be 7 plus years and still no sidewalk here.’’
So what happened? The Hummel Report has learned the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is largely responsible for dropping the ball. And it’s one of the first things Peter Alviti got a briefing on when he took over as DOT Director in early 2015.
Alviti: ``And here we are six, seven years later and we’re at 10 percent completion of design when we got here.’’
Unlike the first round of grants, which got done relatively smoothly, Phase 2, Alviti said, ran into problems: Local communities worried about adhering to federal regulations that go with these projects. And some told the DOT they didn’t have the resources to do the design and engineering work.
So there were delays.
Alviti: ``Do we have the state resources to be able to do it? And I guess they didn’t.’’
Hummel: ``So it just sat?’’
Alviti: ``So it just sat.’’
Hummel: And you get a call every six months or a year or year and a half, `Hey where are we?’”
Alviti: ``I don’t know.’’
Hummel: ``Not you but DOT or Planning…’’
Alviti: ``They’re scratching their heads.’’
Hummel: ``Quite frankly I spoke with a local planner who said this has been an utter failure.’’
Hummel: ``Would you agree with that?’’
Alviti: ``Yes, absolutely.’’
Pimental: ``I’m just assuming it’s a federal program there’s some feet dragging, but then years go by and you’re exchanging emails with people who were helpful locally and you could tell they were in the middle of something that was out of their control. Then I just waited every year, and sent an email a follow-up and it was the same old story.’’
Alviti said the good news is these projects are back on DOT’s radar screen and the funding is available. But it’s unlikely that any significant work will be done for at least another year or two.
We asked the director about accountability.
Hummel: ``You have people who are still here, so has there been a going back and saying, what happened. They were the people in place. And I’m not saying they were the head guy, but you have a lot of senior guys who have been there for all of these things. When they sit in a room, isn’t it, like that was us. Have you had that dialogue?’’
Alviti: ``Oh we have those on a daily basis. The summer interns here continuously have to bring towels up to mop my brains off this conference room table. As my mind explodes. There are legacy problems here, I think I’ve been pretty much up front about that and honest about that. There are legacy problems and party of the solution is recognizing the problems. The problems, as in cases like this, are undeniable. And yes, people have been made accountable for them. The top 14 management positions, as we sit here today, of DOT is not occupied by one person that was in those positions a year ago. The top 14 people are new people, some of them are from within DOT, some of them out of DOT, some of them out of state.
Pimental: ``I’m glad that it is in the budget at this point and I’m glad they’re away of our concerns. And other organizations’ concerns around the state. I’m just hoping they can wrap it up, like I said, it wasn’t a major project, I don’t believe. It’s a small sidewalk on a side street and what does it take to get it done? That’s the question?’’
Hummel: ```So when I come back two or three years from now, you’re not going to be able to say it was an amorphous dropping of the ball by some person in DOT named or unnamed, you have a name and a face and accountability on that sheet?’’
Alviti: ``The ball will have dropped on somebody’s head by that time if they’re not. In the time these go into construction you’ll see the same sign that went up next to many of the projects that you see now, with those infamous red, green and yellow dots on them. Is it on time, is it on budget? And there’s be a person responsible for what shows up on every one of those signs.’’
Pimental: ``My kids will be in college almost by the time those sidewalks go in and it’s been a long challenging battle to get that done.’’
In East Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.