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Rhode Island’s Route 403: building community consensus

Route 403, also known as the Quonset Freeway, was originally a two-lane road that cutting through Washington and Kent counties in Rhode Island.

In 2006, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) proposed relocating Route 403 and building a new four-lane highway in order to alleviate the severe congestion plaguing the largely residential area of North Kingstown. 

Local residents raised concerns. “We didn’t see why we had to go to a whole new highway,” said Sierra Club activist Barry Schiller, representing the interests of environmental organizations.

To a certain extent, RIDOT agreed. “There is a big benefit if you don’t build a new road,” Healey said, “Building is not always the best choice, but the end result was the need for a freeway connection,” said Peter Healey, Principal Civil Engineer for RIDOT.

Thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA) mandated public comment periods, however, residents of North Kingstown and other local communities were able to voice their concerns.

Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and enacted into law in 1970, simply put, NEPA requires government agencies to engage in a review process intended to discover any significant environmental and public health impacts before a decision is made and construction begins. By mandating public input on the impacts of major federal projects like roads, power plants, and pipelines, NEPA provides a forum for communities to make their voices heard in important decisions that affect their health, homes and environment. 

We teach our children to “look before you leap.” NEPA simply and sensible requires our government to do the same.

Over the course of many months, RIDOT and other government officials met with local representatives and held several briefings for North Kingston’s town council to hear their concerns. In one of the town council meetings, the suggestion was brought up to include a culvert for small-animal crossings. “I probably wouldn’t have thought of that on my own,” Healey said.

“NEPA played a vital role in balancing these views. It allows you to seek impact and balance a project…You can’t make all parties happy, but you can certainly balance their interests,” said Healey. “The people that live [in the affected area] know more than I do.”

Healey added that he and his team made extensive efforts to involve the public early in the design process. “We did look at widening the existing road in identifying alternatives…as well as [about] eight different alternatives for the location of the new route,” Healey said, explaining how NEPA was used.

The NEPA process resulted in modifications to the original plan suggested by local citizens that the RIDOT would not have otherwise thought of, including a reduction in acreage that significantly lessened damage to wetlands.

Although some local environmental groups were not completely satisfied with the overall outcome, local Sierra Club President Schiller agreed that NEPA was an essential element in making some of the positive changes in the project. “It clearly minimized the impacts.”

According to his records, the EIS indicated a loss of 50 acres of open space including five acres of wetlands. The final design reduced the impact to 2.42 acres of wetland loss. “NEPA has worked in Rhode Island to improve designs of highways,” he added.

Major construction on the freeway was completed in December 2008, one year ahead of schedule. Minor projects continued on the relocated route until early 2009.

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