Latest Kennedy Plaza Plan Concerns Transit Riders
Multiple redesign plans and unanswered questions have created confusion
September 30, 2019
PROVIDENCE — A new plan to redistribute buses away from Kennedy Plaza and build an underpass under Washington Street between Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park has raised the concern of local transit riders.
According to the plan, created by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), Kennedy Plaza would no longer serve as the city’s central bus hub. Instead, under the proposed plan, three hubs in different locations would serve bus passengers: one at Providence Station, one west of Burnside Park, and one at site near the Garrahy Judicial Complex.
A fourth location, west of Eddy Street and north of Interstate 95, would serve as a site for bus layovers only and wouldn’t service passengers.
In addition to the redistribution of bus stops away from Kennedy Plaza, the plan also consists of a tunnel under a stretch of Washington Street between Burnside Park and Kennedy Plaza through which traffic can pass. The goal of the tunnel, according to a RIDOT spokesman, is to protect pedestrians as they cross Washington Street. Spokespeople for RIDOT and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) both told ecoRI News that if the tunnel project is determined to be infeasible, they intend to drop it from the plan.
The main focus of the plan, then, is to redirect most bus stops away from Providence’s current single bus hub — Kennedy Plaza — and instead to create multiple bus hubs.
When asked if the Kennedy Plaza Intermodal Transportation Center, the terminal building that currently provides bathroom, shelter, and ticket services, would remain open under the proposed multi-hub plan, Scott Avedisian, RIPTA’s CEO, said, “we would continue to use the building.”
Surprisingly, this plan came to the attention of the public while another plan to redesign Kennedy Plaza was already underway. According to John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island and a member of the advocacy group RI Transit Riders, this multi-hub plan seemed to “drop out of the sky.”
He opposes the plan because “it just seems like it’s a rushed process and it’s had no public input.”
So where did this plan come from and why is the city not proceeding with the plan already in progress?
City’s plan derailed
There have been numerous plans to redesign Kennedy Plaza. Before the multi-hub plan came to the attention of the public, the most recent plan with traction was developed by the city’s Department of Planning and Development and announced by Mayor Jorge Elorza in August 2017.
Through several public input sessions in which different community stakeholders voiced their opinions, the city developed its plan to retain Kennedy Plaza as the city’s single bus hub while making it more efficient for transit riders, safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and improving the plaza as a public space.
The plan consists of making Washington Street bus-only between Kennedy Plaza and the East Side Transit Tunnel, to consolidate bus stops at Kennedy Plaza, and to build raised, illuminated crosswalks, among other proposed changes.
Grow Smart’s Flaherty favors that plan, in part because he said the process of developing and reworking it was fair.
“The transit riders had a seat at the table, they could express their concerns, their hopes and wishes,” he said, “and then from that process emerged a preferred alternative.”
This plan is expected to cost $3.2 million in total — $2.7 million is to be funded by the State Transportation Improvement Program and $500,000 is to come from the city’s Capital Improvement Program.
At first, following the mayor’s announcement of the plan two years ago, it proceeded on time. In spring 2018, the city contracted the engineering firm BETA Group Inc. to work on the project. By that fall, the firm had completed its design and engineering work.
After that, the city’s plan stalled. The most recent update to the plan was made last October. Then early this year, on Jan. 7, a lawsuit was filed in Superior Court against the city of Providence, RIDOT, and RIPTA by four plaintiffs who oppose the mayor’s plan.
To get your way, sue the city
According to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, John Mancini, the plaintiffs — Concerned Citizens of Capital Center, Exchange St. Hotel LLC, 100 Westminster Partners LLC, and 30 Kennedy Partners LLC, the latter two of which are companies owned by Joe Paolino Jr., former mayor of Providence and current property developer — are currently in mediation with the defendants over the suit.
“The issue is whether [the defendants] have proper authority to use certain bond monies. Additionally, the question is whether the project requires review by the City’s Planning Commission, which would incorporate public hearings and public notices,” Mancini wrote in an email to ecoRI News.
He didn’t respond to a request to further explain exactly how the defendants have allegedly overstepped their legal authority.
The first mediation session was held Sept. 17 and another one has yet to be scheduled, but Mancini anticipates it will take place the second week of October.
The goal of the mediation is for all parties to come to a resolution so the lawsuit can be dropped.
The plaintiffs and defendants have been discussing the multi-hub plan for a few months, according to Mancini. It’s unclear if the financial interests of the plaintiffs are the engine driving the development of the multi-hub plan.
Paolino told ecoRI News he didn’t have any input in creating the plan.
“I haven’t developed any plans. I’ve just voiced my opinions,” he said.
In a Sept. 5 Boston Globe story, Paolino estimated that between the aforementioned lawsuit and hiring an architect to a craft a plan for the proposed tunnel he has spent about $75,000 to revamp the state’s plans for Kennedy Plaza.
Strangely, when asked about how the multi-hub plan fits together with the mayor’s plan — the one he’s currently suing RIDOT, RIPTA, and the city over — he seemed not to know about the city’s version at all.
“First of all, there was never a plan. I was involved in meetings. I was called into meetings as a property owner and we thought there was an agreement and then after that agreement took place, the city scrapped it,” Paolino said. “And then they started having more meetings and I don’t recall any meetings having a consensus on [sic]. So I disagree, I don’t think there’s been any plans that have been formal, at least none that I have been involved in or that I thought was good for the city.”
How to spend millions unclear
The multi-hub bus project is estimated to cost $35 million — money that is planned to come from a proposal approved by voters in 2014.
According to a 2016 draft of the State of Rhode Island Transportation Improvement Program issued by the Division of Statewide Planing, this money was intended to be used “to fund enhancements and renovations to mass transit hub infrastructure throughout Rhode Island to improve access to multiple intermodal sites, key transportation, healthcare, and other locations.”
“We celebrated when the proposal passed,” Patricia Raub, coordinator of RI Transit Riders, said at a Sept. 19 rally in Burnside Park to oppose the multi-hub plan. “Now we find this money will be used by RIDOT to tear up Kennedy Plaza and disperse passengers far and wide, not to improve access for passengers as we had anticipated. This is a misuse of the funds.”
When asked for a breakdown of how the $35 million would be spent, a RIDOT spokesman told ecoRI News that the tunnel is expected to cost $7 million. In response to ecoRI News noting that leaves $28 million unaccounted for, the spokesman replied, “Not unaccounted for — we don’t have precise estimates for them right now.”
More questions than answers
Barry Schiller, a former RIPTA board member and current member of RI Transit Riders, is concerned by how the plan is being carried out. As he sees it, Paolino is using his connection to Gov. Gina Raimondo and RIDOT to put forth a plan that suits his financial interests as a developer.
“It’s really discouraging that this ‘who you know’ Rhode Island culture has struck again,” he said.
The latest plan — the multi-hub plan — first came to the attention of the public when The Boston Globe and Providence Journal reported on the presentation RIDOT director Peter Alviti was set to present to the Providence Foundation’s board of directors at its monthly meeting on Sept. 5. The foundation’s director, Cliff Wood, invited Alviti to speak and requested he return to present the plan to the foundation’s members, which he did on Sept. 11.
At those meetings, according to Wood, the plan was probed from many angles: does it improve transit, enhance public space, is it cost effective, are the engineering components feasible, what kind of maintenance and security are planned for the new facilities?
“The answers were incomplete,” he said.
He considered it fair to say that the only question that was actually addressed was what the plan actually is. (The answer: four bus hubs.)
In one of the meetings, Wood recalled asking Alviti about an alternative to the multi-hub plan.
“I said, ‘Do you have a Plan B? What’s the move if this is infeasible?’ And he said that they would have to go back to the drawing board.”
How this plan will proceed is unclear. No public meetings have been held or scheduled to address it. On Sept. 23, the first day of fall, a RIDOT spokesman told ecoRI News by email that a request for proposal is expected to be issued “this fall.”
Hopefully, this proposed plan will also include transportation for RIPTA passengers between different hubs if necessary. Not everyone has the income to pay for a taxi service or whatever kind of ride the majority is using now, and some people do not drive, own a car, or have a bicycle, but still need to use the public bus system sometimes.
The reality behind this is that some downtown businessmen want to push out the people RIPTA brings to the Plaza, disproportionately poor, disabled, and/or people of color who they believe make it harder to attract tenants and clients to the area. Of course they are reluctant to say that directly. They are not the only ones with this attitude, I’ve seen variants in Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and elsewhere.
That said, for economic and environmental reasons we as citizens do have an interest in a successful financial district downtown. I think a solution for both transit and business is to improve both KP and transit: more police presence to control and deter any illegal activity; run-through bus routes to reduce bus dwell time in the plaza and circuitous turn-around routes some bus lines have to use; new fare technology to speed up boarding; increased service on key lines so passengers aren’t waiting around as long; terminal building kept open whenever buses are operating, now it closes at 7pm leaving passengers in the dark and (soon) cold; more promotion of transit by the downtown business community – after all it is their one transportation advantage over the suburbs – so that transit is seen as used by more commuters, visitors, shoppers, clients, thus passengers are not so predominantly visibly poor. That should make the business community more comfortable!
There is potential for KP as is, witness the success of adjacent Burnside Park thanks to the good efforts of the Parks Conservancy.
I hope folks call on the governor to withdraw this anti-transit plan with its ludicrous tunnel and its squandering of rare transit capital funds. Instead the Governor should establish a collaborative process of stakeholders including the agencies, riders, the Parks Conservancy, city government, and yes, the business community. Presumably building on the stalled city plan noted in the article, and using the bond funds to improve transit as voters intended, we surely can together develop a plan for a first class transit center and a thriving public space.