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Strong ‘no’ to changing R.I. name

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, November 3, 2010

By Gina Macris

Journal Staff Writer

By an overwhelming margin, Rhode Island voters refused Tuesday to tamper with the state’s official name, despite sentiments that “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” offends modern sensibilities about Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade.

In other statewide referenda, voters also backed financing for much-needed bridge improvements, two new college facilities, acquisition of coastal open spaces at India Point in Providence and Rocky Point in Warwick and repairs to historic Fort Adams in Newport.

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting statewide, almost 78 percent of voters opposed a constitutional amendment that would have dropped “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name.

The term was first used by Roger Williams in the 1640s when a plantation referred to a settlement, “especially the planting of a colony,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And historians point out that Roger Williams was an ardent opponent of slavery.

But the sponsors of the legislation that put the measure on the 2010 ballot say the historical origins of the official name are not the point.

The fact that the word “plantations” has become offensive to many of the state’s citizens should be enough reason to change it, wrote state Rep. Joseph S. Almeida and state Sen. Harold Metts, both Providence Democrats.

With complete results statewide, 73 percent of voters had approved $84.7 million in transportation bonds. Of that total, $80 million will go to the state Department of Transportation for 75 road, bridge and cycling improvement projects scheduled to begin between 2011 and 2014. The remaining $4.7 will help the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority purchase hybrid buses costing as much as $23.5 million, with a maximum of $18.8 million coming from the Federal Transit Administration.

The state director of transportation has warned that without the $80-million state match, Rhode Island would lose federal funding for $423 million in highway and bike-path repairs from Westerly to Central Falls.

The largest single project would replace the Providence viaduct bridge at a cost of $80 million. The viaduct is the elevated section of Route 95 that serves as a central hub to downtown Providence and state offices.

Projects unaffected by Tuesday’s vote include the new Pawtucket River and Sakonnet River bridges, as well as the relocation of Route 195 in Providence, all of which already have assured funding.

Unlike most other states, Rhode Island does not have an ongoing highway construction budget financed by operating revenue raised through taxation.

With ballots counted, the vote showed 55 percent of voters favor $78 million in higher education bonds, including $61 million for a new chemistry building at the University of Rhode Island and $17 million for replacing the arts center at Rhode Island College. URI President David M. Dooley has said badly outdated chemistry facilities hold back researchers from contributing to the state’s emerging “knowledge economy.” The existing chemistry building was built in 1953 on the basis of plans drawn in 1938 and put on hold because of World War II.

RIC officials have said a new arts center is essential for health and safety reasons, as well as to improve academic programs. Without new construction, RIC will be forced to put $1 million into immediate repairs, just to keep open a building that had already outlived its usefulness as an arts facility in 2004.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, the totals also showed 64.6 percent of voters backing $14.7 million in open space and recreation bonds to preserve and enhance what a top state environmental official describes as “three jewels” of the Rhode Island coastline.

About $10 million would go to purchase some 80 acres of the former Rocky Point Amusement Park, and another $3.2 million would reclaim the site of the former Shooters nightclub at India Point, now pockmarked by a bubble gum-pink building and broken glass. Masonry restoration and other repairs at Fort Adams State Park would cost $1.5 million.

Constituencies that included higher education, environmentalists and transportation officials lobbied actively for their respective proposals. There was little organized opposition, although the Rhode Island Tea Party issued a last-minute position paper saying the state could not afford to increase its bonded indebtedness and urged defeat of any new spending.

gmacris@projo.com

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