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Underground bus tunnel pitched for Kennedy Plaza redesign in downtown Providence

Kennedy Plaza in Providence, where state officials want to build an underground tunnel for buses. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — State officials are set to unveil a plan Thursday to build an underground tunnel for buses in the heart of downtown Providence, the latest iteration in a years-long attempt to redesign Kennedy Plaza.

Representatives from Governor Gina Raimondo’s office, the state Department of Transportation, and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority are scheduled to present their proposal to the board of directors of the Providence Foundation at a meeting Thursday morning.

An architectural rendering reviewed by the Globe shows the proposed tunnel being built on the Washington Street side of the plaza. Having buses travel underground as they leave downtown would allow the plaza and Burnside Park to be connected without having vehicle traffic separating the two landmarks, according to Jennifer Bogdan, a spokeswoman for the governor.


Bogdan confirmed that the state will issue a formal request for developers to submit proposals on the redesign this fall, and the state hopes to have a developer in place by the end of the year.

It’s not clear how much the redesign would cost or when it would be completed, but Bogdan said the state plans to use most of a $35 million infrastructure bond that voters approved in 2014 to fund the project. She said the state may also use a portion of the $25 million in federal funding that Senator Jack Reed has secured for a renovation of the Providence train station.

The envisioned tunnel is part of a broader plan to move most of the existing bus stops in Kennedy Plaza to surrounding streets, an idea that has long been supported by some developers, including former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino.

Aside from the tunnel, the state is considering establishing two bus stops each on Washington Street closer to City Hall and on Exchange Street. Another stop is planned for the Garrahy Judicial Complex at the corner of Dorrance and Dyer streets, but Bogdan said the state would first have to acquire the land from a private developer.


Officials are also considering opening a small bus hub on state-owned land near Davol Square and Eddy Street, Bogdan said.

Paolino, whose 20-story building at 100 Westminster St. overlooks Kennedy Plaza, is currently suing the state and the city over a separate plan to reroute buses downtown, arguing that property owners weren’t included in the process. But he said the tunnel could resolve his legal complaint.

Paolino has long complained that too many people loiter in Kennedy Plaza and on the surrounding sidewalks, driving away businesses that might be interested in opening downtown. He also successfully lobbied the City Council to approve a ban on smoking downtown, another effort to move crowds away from downtown.

“Kennedy Plaza is a mess, it’s a disaster,” Paolino said. “I’m in favor of all of this plan because I think it makes a lot of sense.”

Between the lawsuit and hiring an architect to a craft a plan for the tunnel, Paolino estimated that he has spent around $75,000 to revamp the state’s plans for Kennedy Plaza. Eric Zuena, an architect hired by Paolino, is also scheduled to make a presentation to the Providence Foundation at Thursday’s board meeting.

While the state is seeking to move quickly on the redesign, Cliff Wood, the executive director of the Providence Foundation, said there are still many unanswered questions about the plan.


Wood was one of the leading advocates for the $35 million bond in 2014, and he has worked closely with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration to consider ways to improve Kennedy Plaza.

“We have no idea if this plan is feasible,” Wood said. “This is really our first opportunity to vet this thing or ask any good questions.”

The proposal doesn’t require the Providence Foundation’s approval to move forward, but Bogdan said the state is hopeful the organization will support the plan. The RIPTA board of directors will be asked to vote on the proposal in the coming months.

Emily Crowell, a spokeswoman for Elorza, said the administration is supportive of connecting public spaces like the plaza and Burnside Park, but she stopped short of endorsing the tunnel. She said city officials still want to learn more about the plan.

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.