Building the High Road

Fall 2020


By Sue Kennedy | Photographs by Monica Allard Cox


Roadwork planning can be complicated, requiring careful coordination of state and local government efforts and financial and staff resources. Resiliency building, or preparing roads to withstand flooding and erosion, takes the complexity to a new level.

AS ANYONE WHO HAS LOST A TIRE TO  A POTHOLE KNOWS, the quality of public roads and related infrastructure, like bridges, is a perennial concern, one that raises loud complaints from taxpayers whenever regular travel is impeded or difficult. And the fact that roads are a circulatory system representing the life-blood of communities is never far from the minds of transportation officials tasked with keeping it going.

About half of the $7 billion for the state’s 10-year (2018-2027) transportation project package is slated to repair or enhance roads and bridges, which have seen increased vehicular pressure brought on by continued development. And with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council expecting that the state will be inundated with at least 9 feet of sea level rise by 2100, the potential for widespread road flooding and erosion in coastal communities adds to the stress on this infrastructure.

“I call this a predicament, as opposed to a problem. A problem is something that can be solved, but we’re not going to solve sea level rise or flooding. A predicament is something you can address, and that’s the way we have to consider this,” says Gary Crosby, town planner for Portsmouth, where the neighborhoods of Common Fence Point and Island Park, as well as the Melville marine industrial area, already see flooding from sunny-day king tides as well as from increasingly severe storms.

Conley Zani, of Portsmouth’s Common Fence Point—a peninsula on Narragansett Bay—vividly recalls the stormy weather that accompanied her move to the neighborhood in 2009. “I looked out at this rising water and just thought, ‘Uh oh … this is something that we’re clearly going to have to be thinking about.’”

Zani, who is among those active in Common Fence Point resiliency efforts, says she has educated herself so she can bring others along. “I see it as a mission I’m on, because if we as neighbors can be informed, then we can help each other plan, we can deal with this, we can have smart solutions.”

The Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank (RIIB) works with municipalities to finance infrastructure improvements, increasingly weaving resiliency and green bonds into financing options. Through its Municipal Resilience Program (MRP), participating cities and towns are awarded action grant funds for a variety of adaptation projects, including road and infrastructure work. Also, since 2015, the Municipal Road and Bridge discounted borrowing program has lent $106.7 million, often for local projects that answer stormwater runoff and resiliency needs.

Portsmouth secured funding from RIIB for three separate projects from the MRP, including an effort to widen and improve drainage for the narrow entrance of Common Fence Point. “If the community needs to evacuate, we want to be sure this area is as wide and clear of flooding as possible,” says Crosby. “It’s very important for safety.”

The Infrastructure Bank awarded $1 million in action grants to participating municipalities in 2019 and has committed another $1 million for implementation-ready resilience projects in 2020.

“The municipal response to the program has been fantastic since day one,” says RIIB Director of Stormwater and Resilience Shaun O’Rourke. “The need is there, and the communities are showing they’ve done their homework and are ready to implement.” 

Flooding and sea level rise is absolutely a community issue right now, but it’s just not perceived or understood by many as a critical one.

Similarly, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s (RIDOT) Stormwater Management Program provides a conduit for communities to work with the state to plan, fund, and carry out resiliency components for stormwater management projects.

The program’s key focus is ensuring municipalities meet state water quality standards, with resiliency building coming in as a bonus. The program is budgeted to spend more than $110 million over a decade on water quality improvements statewide, and community stormwater management projects will be part of this effort.

“Improving water quality is the goal, but it’s often cost-effective and makes sense to factor in other issues related to flooding, and address as many problems as you can with a single project,” says Brian Moore, administrator of the RIDOT Office of Stormwater Management. “Bundling,” is how Diane Williamson, director of community development for Bristol, puts it. “I think the days of designing a project for one aim or one goal are over. The way we work now is to achieve multiple goals with each and every project, and resiliency often rises to the top.”

Bundling could also describe how towns work together: “We’re a close-knit group, and our issues with water are shared, so the towns turn to each other, and I think that’s a good thing,” says Kate Michaud, town manager for Warren. “I also think a lot about how we can bring the community into understanding  the issues we face with water. If we have an area with several resiliency projects taking place, that’s an opportunity to share it, so people can be more aware.”

Warren’s Keri Cronin, president of the town council, says public participation is going to be more important going forward, if coastal communities are to adapt effectively.

“Flooding and sea level rise is absolutely a community issue right now, but it’s just not perceived or understood by many as a critical one.”

High tide flooding at this parking lot in Wickford Village has become so frequent there are often cones out. Photo by Tom Sgouros, courtesy of MyCoast

Cronin has a personal reason to appreciate this threat; with her mother, she also owns and operates a Water Street clothing boutique that is vulnerable to flooding.

“If you stop and think about Warren, you realize just how much of our environment here is water,” she says. “This is a place that has a long history of always having to adjust to the water, and we’re going to have to do it more frequently.”

Even while strides are being made to layer resiliency planning into roadwork efforts, growing pains are still felt within the Rhode Island planning community, as the struggle to address increasing road flooding with limited financial resources and manpower continues.

Consider, for example, New Shoreham’s recent grappling with the future of Corn Neck Road, a two-way state road on the eastern coast of Block Island that connects its northern and southern sections. It serves as an emergency evacuation route and is critical for police, fire, and rescue work. It’s also prone to flooding from storms, tides, and sea level rise. The town, with federal funds, secured a feasibility study so it could weigh options for fortifying the road. Two options—one elevating the road, the other partially relocating it—would, to varying degrees, make the road less flood prone. These estimated multi-million-dollar efforts, while providing some protection for the roadway, wouldn’t ultimately be flood proof in the long run. The third option calls for a partial bridge structure, and could provide a solid and longer lasting level of protection, but at a steep price—a projected $77 million.

Ultimately, the town chose to go with a portion of one of the more moderate options—elevating a segment of the road. “Cost was certainly a factor when selecting the preferred alternative,” says Alison Ring, New Shoreham town planner and GIS manager, noting that “additional studies are likely to be required as the town moves forward with the selected alternative from concept to preliminary design.”

State resources are also stretched thin. RIDOT, tasked with maintaining the integrity and safety of state roads, is already working at full throttle to bring the Rhode Island’s 1,178 bridges into compliance with federal minimum bridge sufficiency standards, and to have the bulk of this done by 2025. Couple this with mounting requests from municipalities—both coastal and inland—for help with flood-plagued state roads, and the result is longer waits for roadwork. Barrington, for instance, eyes Wampanaug Trail (Route 114) as a flooding concern; similarly, Bristol awaits improvements for Poppasquash Road, Portsmouth for Park Avenue, and Warren for Market Street (Route 136).

Warren’s Michaud understands the wait, but she says she needs to be vigilant on behalf of the town and will continue to press for the work to be done.

“It is a big issue, because when you have a community on the coast, these are roads that people are living on and working on.”

Crosby, of Portsmouth, agrees that the pressure is on for the state to address its flooding roadways. “Let’s just say I have had fish flopping up and onto the road when it’s flooded.”

RIDOT acknowledges the concern of the community planners for road flooding issues tied to sea level rise and storm surge and urges continued partnership—and patience. “We hear them, and we get it,” says RIDOTPolicy Director Pamela Cotter.

“Resiliency is definitely an issue we are going to continue to need to work on together, for the long haul.”

Indeed, as a road’s flooding increases in the future, decision-makers will likely be faced with potentially tough choices about whether to invest in keeping the road usable or to relocate or even abandon it. Read Porter, senior staff attorney at the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University School of Law and the Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program, has studied the legal ramifications of chronic road flooding. “Responding to coastal road flooding requires communities to balance the value that people place on roads to keep their lives moving against the cost to government of keeping them open, often for the benefit of just a few residents,” he says. “From a legal standpoint, there is no get-out-of-jail-free option, so these decisions will become more difficult over time. We’re really only at the beginning of this process.” 

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