Does East Main Road need to go on a ‘diet’?

RIDOT will ultimately decide, but council votes 4-2 to adopt lane reductions as a ‘philosophy’

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/10/24

PORTSMOUTH — Although the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has already recommended against lane reductions for a major stretch of East Main Road due to high traffic counts, the …

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Does East Main Road need to go on a ‘diet’?

RIDOT will ultimately decide, but council votes 4-2 to adopt lane reductions as a ‘philosophy’


PORTSMOUTH — Although the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has already recommended against lane reductions for a major stretch of East Main Road due to high traffic counts, the idea has been revived at the local level.

On Monday, the Town Council voted 4-2 to adopt as a “philosophy” a proposed road diet for East Main Road that was presented by Ride Island, an organization that advocates for a connected pathway network to allow for safe cycling and walking on Aquidneck Island. Officials in Middletown and Newport were to be apprised of the council’s decision, since timing is of the essence.

David Gleason and Keith Hamilton voted against the measure, while Town Council President Kevin Aguiar recused himself from discussion because he’s employed by a company that often works with RIDOT.

The Middletown Town Council, which had already heard Ride Island’s presentation, hasn’t taken an official stance on a road diet but voted 5-2 to call a public hearing on the matter for Monday, April 15. RIDOT, which will ultimately decide whether to make any further lane reductions on East Main Road, has set an April 19 deadline for Middletown to decide whether it will ask for the road diet in that town, where a major resurfacing project is set to start this summer. 

Such improvements were also expected this year along East Main Road in Portsmouth, from the Middletown line to Turnpike Avenue. However, pushback by some residents and a lawsuit brought by Clements’ Marketplace over a proposed roundabout at the Turnpike Avenue intersection led RIDOT to delay the improvements here until at least 2025.

A road diet, as council member Daniela Abbott explained, involves “taking our currently configured four-lane highway, reducing it to two lanes, with a turning lane in the middle.” She was the council’s fiercest advocate for the lane reductions Monday night.

RIDOT has already installed several road diets in Portsmouth, such as on East Main Road north of Turnpike Avenue, Turnpike Avenue, Bristol Ferry Road, and a section of Route 114 east of Turnpike. Although they received significant opposition from some residents during the planning stages, they have generally been successful in slowing down drivers and reducing accidents, according to Police Chief Brian Peters and others.

The longer stretch of East Main Road that’s south of Turnpike Avenue, however, is a different story, as that’s where the bulk of the traffic on the east side of Aquidneck Island ends up. Abbott acknowledged as much by saying the town was rebuffed when it asked RIDOT to look at a potential road diet on that section of East Main Road back in 2020. RIDOT conducted a road safety assessment and at the time told the town “they believed a road diet was not recommended because we were on the borderline of the traffic volume.” 

Abbott, however, said there is different data available that should be looked at now, and some aspects of traffic flow were not originally considered by RIDOT.

“There’s an argument to be made for RIDOT to at least take another look at it and see what they think before they go forward with the paving project,” she said. “Either we do it together (with Middletown) or it doesn’t happen. We’re not going to do a piece of East Main Road and then stop at the town line.”

Narrow and unsafe

Bari Freeman is executive director of Bike Newport, which leads the Ride Island initiative along with Grow Smart Rhode Island, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, and national active transportation experts at Toole Design. 

“We all know the configuration of East Main Road is dangerous and stressful,” Freeman said. “The road has four travel lanes, no turn lanes, mostly no shoulder and side streets and driveways on both sides of the road. We all know what it feels like to stop in the travel lane and wait to make a left turn. It’s scary to sit there and feel rushed. And if we’re approaching someone sitting there, we’re thinking about how to change lanes and avoid them to begin with. This scenario is one of the top causes of the 200-plus crashes on East Main Road each year.” 

A road diet, she said, will reduce stressful conditions and accidents. “People turning left have a safe place to wait for a gap in traffic, and the slower constant speed will be safer for everyone in the travel lane,” she said.

Road diets, she added, also free up space for needed and improved bus stops, pedestrian crossings, and bike lanes. (On the latter point, the council Monday also unanimously approved a resolution that endorsed a Ride Island Bike Plan that would serve as an advisory resource in guiding transportation-related infrastructure for the town. We’ll take a deeper look into that agenda item in next week’s paper.)

If such a road diet were implemented into the upcoming paving work, she argued, it could be a “no-cost project.”

Tom Welch, a member of the Middletown Town Council, also endorsed the idea of lane reductions. “I am in favor of the road diet. It’s the best way that I’ve seen so far that can make East Main Road safer,” said Welch, who has lived on Mitchell’s Lane off East Main Road for nearly 60 years.

A landscaper who regularly tows a trailer, Welch confirmed the high stress levels he feels whenever he’s waiting to make a left turn from East Main Road onto Mitchell’s. “You’re constantly looking in your rear-view mirror, waiting to get rear-ended,” he said.

East Main Road is 42 feet wide, with four 10-foot lanes, he said. “The Department of Transportation Highway Design Manuel specifies a minimum of 11 feet for travel lanes,” said Welch, adding the state did nothing after Middletown and Portsmouth officials raised that discrepancy.

Welch, who spent 25 years with the Newport Fire Department, said a road diet would also help rescue workers get to their destinations faster, by allowing them to use the middle turn lane. 

Another option — widening East Main Road — is a mere pipe dream that will never happen, said Welch, Sen. Louis DiPalma (Dist. 12-Middletown, Newport, Tiverton, Little Compton), and most others who chimed in on the matter.

DiPalma said while road diets are “not appropriate everywhere,” he urged the council to at least consider Ride Island’s proposal. He pointed out a road diet doesn’t always mean just two lanes with a center turning lane; Route 136 in Bristol and Warren, he said, is a “menagerie” of different configurations.

“It’s all about safety. If it’s not for safety, it’s not worth doing,” said DiPalma, adding a road diet doesn’t necessarily need to be permanent. “At the end of the day, this is paint on the road as a temporary kind of thing, to see if this works or not.”

Too much traffic?

Council member Keith Hamilton, however, who voted against endorsing the road diet along with David Gleason, said the town already tried that. “We asked for paint on the road three years ago, and (RIDOT) wouldn’t do it because of the traffic counts,” he said. “I think the traffic counts are way too high for a road diet.”

Local resident Tom Grieb agreed. He read from RIDOT’s safety assessment, which stated about 24,800 vehicles travel East Main Road daily, which approaches the “maximum traffic volume” of 28,500. The RIDOT report, Grieb added, concluded that a road diet would not comfortably process traffic at an adequate level and would push more traffic onto West Main Road, an even another dangerous route.

Larry Fitzmorris, president of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, agreed that the data showed more accidents on West Main Road. “If we close 50 percent of the northbound lane during the commute period, we’re going to double the number of cars in that one lane,” he said.

Gleason said it was too early to vote on a road diet, because the town didn’t have enough information the impact such a configuration would have on traffic. He also said East Main Road was even narrower than the dimensions cited by Welch, and that widening the street was the real answer.

“We have a 38-foot-wide road that is substandard. We should be pushing for something that is wider that exists today,” Gleason said.

Chief Peters said while the police department has historically been in favor of road diets, and that the ones in place now have reduced the number of crashes on Turnpike Avenue, upper East Main Road, Bristol Ferry Road, and upper West Main Road, he couldn’t endorse something unless RIDOT supported it.

Timing is everything

Council member Charles Levesque voiced support for the road diet, even though he was against the idea of paving. (“Once you get a nice surface on the road, people drive faster; that’s a fact,” he said.) It was important for the council to act now, Levesque said, since the town needed to work collaboratively with Middletown.

“I have a firm conviction that if we don’t agree to this, it will get voted down by Middletown and it will no longer be in the picture,” he said.

Hamilton, however, said if Middletown approved the idea, then RIDOT could turn around and take a “holistic look at all of East Main Road for a road diet, and you can kiss paving East Main Road (in Middletown) this summer goodbye.”

It’s possible, however, that it could work out in Portsmouth’s favor, he said: Perhaps RIDOT would focus its attention on Sprague Street and West Main Road this year instead of dealing with a road diet in Middletown. 

Council Vice President Leonard Katzman, who sat as chairman in Aguiar’s absence, noted the public’s reaction when RIDOT proposed road diets on East Main Road north of Turnpike Avenue, as well as on Turnpike and Bristol Ferry Road.

“At that time, people thought it was going to be the end of the world — it’s terrible,” he said. “Everybody I’ve spoken to who have businesses on it, live on it? They love it. Is this stretch of East Main Road different? Maybe, but we’ll have RIDOT weigh in on that. But I think it would be a good thing.”

Ride Island, Bike Newport, road diet, East Main Road, Portsmouth Town Council

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.