Residents voice strong opposition to Portsmouth roundabout

Afterward, RIDOT says it’s ‘indifferent’ on whether project goes forward

By Jim McGaw
Posted 12/5/23

PORTSMOUTH — Several hundred residents crowded the Portsmouth High School auditorium Thursday night, the great majority of them with a resounding message for the Town Council: They …

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Residents voice strong opposition to Portsmouth roundabout

Afterward, RIDOT says it’s ‘indifferent’ on whether project goes forward

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Several hundred residents crowded the Portsmouth High School auditorium last Thursday night, the great majority of them with a resounding message for the Town Council: They don’t want the state putting in a roundabout at the intersection of East Main Road and Turnpike Avenue.

The roundabout has been part of the R.I. Department of Transportation’s (RIDOT) planned paving improvements along East Main Road for at least two decades. It was also one piece of the old “Town Center” project — major traffic improvements along East Main Road from Town Hall to Turnpike Avenue, complete with business-friendly turn lanes and safe accommodations for bikes and pedestrians — which many officials and residents had all but given up on. Improvements to the East Main Road/Turnpike Avenue intersection are being fast-tracked now because of funding available through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, according to council member Keith Hamilton.

However the project got revived, residents who spoke at Thursday’s meeting wished it had stayed away. Thirty citizens took to the microphone during nearly three hours of public comment and nearly all of them said “no” to the roundabout, which would be located in front of Clements’ Marketplace and connected to the store’s main entrance. Others made their feelings known from their seats, shouting their disapproval or heckling anyone who argued for roundabouts’ successes in traffic safety.

In the end, the council didn’t say yay or nay to the project. Members voted 5-1 to request more information from RIDOT as well as a meeting with transportation officials within two weeks in order to acquire more information so the council can serve the best interests of its citizens. The governor and the local legislative delegation were to be cc’d on the council’s response.

Council member Daniela Abbott, who strongly supported the roundabout and said it would make the intersection safer for all, cast the dissenting vote. Council President Kevin Aguiar recused himself from the discussion and vote, as he’s employed by a company that often works with RIDOT. Council Vice President Leonard Katzman took the gavel during the roundabout portion of the proceedings. 

RIDOT is ‘indifferent’

No representatives from RIDOT attended the meeting, but on Friday the department indicated it didn’t care whether the roundabout project went forward or not. RIDOT posted the following statement on X (formerly Twitter): “The Portsmouth roundabout was designed at the specific request of the Portsmouth Town Council as part of improvements to roadways between Portsmouth and Middletown. RIDOT is indifferent to whether the roundabout is built or not.”

The agenda also included two items regarding the transfer station, but the more controversial of the two — whether a request for proposals should include an option to keep the transfer station operating as is — was tabled until January because there was too little time left in the meeting. (Everyone had to be out of the building by 10 p.m., and discussion on the roundabout alone dragged on to nearly 9:30 p.m.)

Speaker after speaker blasted RIDOT’s proposal for the roundabout — or rotary, as many referred to it — despite Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr. detailing the consequences should the council not back the project.

“If the town does not support the roundabout, DOT would modify the project and strictly focus on the resurfacing. However, if that is what the town desires, there are some implications DOT wants us to be made aware of. Specifically, the addition of sidewalks, crosswalks and shared-use paths that were originally part of the project … would have to be removed,” Rainer said. “We have to give an answer to DOT because DOT is ready to issue the requests for proposals (RFP) for this project.” That needs to be done in time for paving season, which begins in early spring 2024, he added.

Before residents had their turn to speak, several council members spoke in favor of roundabouts as a whole, saying they “calm” traffic and slow down drivers while keeping vehicles moving at a steady pace. 

“I have been hoping for this roundabout since probably 1980,” said council member Charles Levesque, who sparred with several residents over the course of the evening. “They calm traffic, they prevent more serious accidents, and they move people along. I would like to see dozens of them in this town. If you are against this, bring some facts of dispute. All of the engineering studies say that they work.”

Abbott agreed. “That intersection is incredibly dangerous; I have personally seen many accidents there,” she said, noting that according to Police Chief Brian Peters, there are anywhere from 14 to 19 accidents annually there. “I don’t want to wait for more people to get hurt. It is natural and normal for people to be uncomfortable with change, (but) a roundabout is the best solution for that intersection.”

Council member David Gleason said roundabouts are definitely “traffic-calming,” but he took issue with the claim that the intersection in question was all that dangerous. According to police, Gleason said, the junction was responsible for only about 2.9 percent of all accidents in Portsmouth annually. A roundabout there could slow traffic down, but drivers would just go back to speeding once they’re around it, he said.

Gleason also said he was concerned about the impact construction on the roundabout would have on local businesses, pointing to the recent work on Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown. “People avoid that street due to construction,” he said.

Nearby businesses weigh in

Owners of several businesses in the area said that’s exactly what worries them, too. 

“Not just a few businesses will be hurt with a project of this magnitude, and many will feel the negative effects. A lot of them are very nervous about it,” said Tracy Anthony, owner of Clements'. 

Anthony said she was so alarmed by how much property RIDOT is “taking away from me” to build the roundabout, she hired Neal Hingorany, president of Narragansett Engineering in Portsmouth, to study the matter. Hingorany told the council the project will impact Clements’ entry, stormwater facilities, and will involved both the temporary and permanent taking of Anthony’s property.

“Something’s gone wrong with the stakeholder engagement process,” he said, noting RIDOT has refused to provide engineering reports, despite an Access to Public Records Act request by the store.

When Katzman said he recalled Anthony being in favor of the Town Center plan when it was being discussed 20-plus years ago, Anthony replied she got on the committee only because she wanted to be in the loop about the project. 

“I had a seat at the table, so I’d have a voice. Nothing ever happened with it,” she said.

Sarah Zlydaszek, manager of The Portsmouth Shop slightly south of Clements', spoke for many in the audience who said a two-lane roundabout won’t slow drivers down enough to justify its existence at the expense of the impact to local business. She and others suggested RIDOT simply needs to repave and reconfigure the traffic pattern and lights.

Zlydaszek and several others also referred to problems with the roundabouts in the Apponaug section of Warwick, saying they’ve forced several stores to leave the area, with other businesses losing 40 to 60 percent of their profits during construction.

Scott Polselli, owner of Food Works further south, said he was concerned about the timeline of the project. “With a roundabout, we’re looking at two or three construction cycles, I am told,” said Polselli, who also owns Pickles on Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown — where construction has disrupted traffic in recent months. “We lost a lot of business there and I have not gotten any compensation by DOT. I don’t think they’re very business-friendly.” 

He added that at rush hour from 4 to 6 p.m., anyone leaving Clements' is “not getting into that roundabout.” Some residents also said local drivers, not being familiar with roundabouts, would have difficulty maneuvering around the rotary safely.

Distrustful of RIDOT

Some citizens expressed their distrust of RIDOT based on previous road improvement projects or promises made by the department. “I do not trust the state to do what they say they’re going to do,” said Ben Briggs, of East Main Road. “Why isn’t the state being more transparent about this? Because they want to ram it down our throats.”

Phillip Driscoll, of Immokolee Drive, said he didn’t like the fact that RIDOT was “threatening to take away sidewalks” if the town didn’t look favorably upon the roundabout, and that the department should be more transparent. “Why are they hiding the drawings? Why isn’t there a collaborative communication from the Department of Transportation?” Driscoll asked.

Bill Hunt, of Lambie Circle, was more diplomatic in his assessment of the roundabout. A member of the Town Center Committee back in 2003, Hunt said residents should be open-minded about another solution for traffic safety.

“I’ve lived here 45 years and East Main Road has been horrible for 45 years. I think if we just repave it, we haven’t solved any of the problems,” said Hunt, adding it’s common for major traffic improvements to temporarily disrupt businesses and residents. “This is the world we live in.”

Later in the meeting, Katzman read some comments the council received from other residents in favor of the roundabout — four pages’ worth, he said — despite grumbles from some in the auditorium. “Yours are not the only opinions in town,” Katzman told the crowd. 

Voting begins

After hearing from residents, Abbott drew groans when she made a motion to tell RIDOT that the council approved the roundabout in concept, but that it had concerns over its designs and how they were presented without prior review or discussion, and that the town would like an opportunity for comment, revisions, and a timeline. 

Hamilton said he couldn’t support Abbott’s motion “because a yes to DOT is a, ‘Go forward with the project.’ I would rather have DOT come down to us prior to going forward.”

Like Rainer did earlier, Hamilton also warned the crowd that a strict “no” vote would mean “the rest of East Main Road doesn’t get done either. You could be looking at five, 10, 15 years. Just be aware of that. My discussion with them today was if we say no, they’re just going to mill and repave.” 

Council member J. Mark Ryan agreed. “I’m also afraid if we tell (RIDOT Director Peter) Alviti no, he’s going to just pick up his marbles and go home,” Ryan said, as many in the crowd shouted that they were fine with that.

Abbott’s motion failed in a 2-4 vote, with she and Levesque voting in favor. Ryan then made a motion to request a meeting with RIDOT within two weeks because the council didn’t have enough information to best serve the interests of its citizens. That motion passed 5-1, with Abbott casting the sole dissenting vote.

Portsmouth Town Council, roundabout, RIDOT, East Main Road, Clements'

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