Governor Plows Ahead with Multi-Station Transit Plan
November 8, 2020
PROVIDENCE — Gov. Gina Raimondo held a recent trumpet call to boost a plan that shifts most bus stops from Kennedy Plaza to new terminals at the train station and within the Jewelry District, despite unresolved objections.
“In my mind,” Raimondo said during the Nov. 5 online meeting, “this project and the fact that we are all here holding hands announcing that we are moving forward to make this a reality, means we’re together taking one big step towards a more resilient, connected, sustainable Rhode Island.”
Transit advocates, however, strongly disagree.
Raimondo noted that an interagency team has worked on the Multi-Hub Bus System for months and held a dozen meetings. “And we have reworked the plan numerous times to incorporate the input we have received from riders, from neighbors, from stakeholders, and, of course, the public,” she said.
Overlooking disapproval from public-transportation advocates, Raimondo held the 18-minute pep talk with Mayor Jorge Elorza, Scott Avedisian, CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), and Peter Alviti, director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT).
Questions weren’t allowed and none of the speakers directly addressed the criticism that the Dyer Street station would likely extend travel times for riders, especially those from low-income communities.
Elorza, Alviti, and Avedisian professed their commitment to the overall multi-hub concept and gave assurances that outstanding problems will be addressed through additional public input and meetings.
Elorza likes that the project includes improvements to the skating rink, Burnside Park, and Waterplace Park as part of the proposed Kennedy Plaza makeover. He said the design process, led by the London-based Arup Group, will include public comments to improve bus travel and make downtown a civic center that rivals popular destinations around the world.
“It’s about time we have it here in Providence as well,” Elorza said.
When asked after the meeting about Elorza’s previous reservations about the project, spokesperson Patricia Socarras said there will be public input to address the proposed Dyer Street bus station in the Jewelry District. National Grid, which owns the Dyer Street location, will also participate in the planning, she said.
“The Dyer Street hub is challenging because of its constrained location and we believe more consideration should be given to pedestrian movements around the Dyer Street location, the layout of buses, access to the new West Side Park, and impacts to the waterfront park,” Socarras said.
Audrey Lucas, press secretary for Raimondo, defended the project, saying “voters clearly expressed their support for the multi-hub system in 2014 when they voted to approve $35 million in funding for the project.”
Voters six years ago, however, didn’t specifically approve the Multi-Hub Bus System proposal now being pushed. Question 6 on the 2014 statewide ballot, Rhode Island Mass Transit Hub Infrastructure Bonds, for $35 million noted that approval “will allow the State of Rhode Island to issue general obligation bonds, refunding bonds, and temporary notes in an amount not to exceed thirty-five million dollars ($35,000,000) to fund enhancements and renovations to mass transit hub infrastructure throughout the State of Rhode Island to improve access to multiple intermodal sites, key transportation, healthcare, and other locations.”
The state-favored proposal has been vetted and revised, Lucas said, “and we are confident that this plan will be good for riders, good for the environment, and good for jobs. We look forward to continuing to engage the public in this process, particularly around the redesign of Kennedy Plaza and the Innovation District Hub.”
Alviti said the project has evolved over six years and promised that hearings will be held in accordance with regulations. He highlighted improved regional travel that buses will bring to the train station on Gaspee Street, as well as new amenities.
“But I promise the riding public, as we go forward, we’ll be working toward providing a better experience at each of the hubs,” Alviti said.
There is, however, a growing chorus of objectors who say public input from riders should happen, along with additional study, before a concept is approved.
A statement by the advocacy group Rhode Island Transit Riders noted reports of contamination at the National Grid site on Dyer Street.
“We have repeatedly made it clear that this plan would do lasting damage to Rhode Island public transit. It would harm the vast majority of bus riders, not help them as the governor claims. This plan must be stopped,” according to the group’s statement.
The City Council passed a resolution Oct. 15 opposing the project. The Environment Council of Rhode Island approved a resolution Oct. 5 asking Raimondo to suspend the project until a robust stakeholder review can decide how the bond money should be spent.
During an Oct. 21 meeting of the RIPTA board of directors, transit advocate Barry Schiller asked, “If you were taking a bus downtown would you rather go to Kennedy Plaza in the middle of everything, or Dyer Street where there’s nothing around it but parking? It’s pretty clear that you’d prefer to go to the center where everything is.”
Public-transportation proponent Randall Rose noted that there hasn’t been a hearing for riders to speak directly with the designers of the multi-station plan.
“The main problem is getting rid of the central transit hub at Kennedy Plaza means that things will be a lot worse in our transit system,” Rose said. “Any system with no central transit hub is going be dangerous for riders, it’s going to be difficult for the disabled. It’s going to be destroying the value of public transit in our state and making it difficult for people around the state.”
Grow Smart Rhode Island is exploring legal and legislative options to challenge the Kennedy Plaza bus realignment.
“We just believe the administration’s plan is fundamentally flawed,” John Flaherty, Grow Smart’s deputy director, said.
Flaherty noted that there was no substantive reason to have the no-questions-allowed Nov. 5 press conference, because it lacked substance and details. He questioned having the proposal, which impacts the entire state, advance separately from the ongoing update of a statewide transportation plan, Transit Forward-RI 2040.
RIPTA board chair Normand Benoit said at the Oct. 21 meeting that change is needed to address the decrease in ridership. Benoit spoke of working near Kennedy Plaza since the mid-1970s. City Hall Plaza is no longer the epicenter of commerce in the state and many businesses and services have migrated from downtown. Until relatively recently, the Jewelry District was nearly abandoned but now has attracted universities, medical services, businesses, and residential development. The transit hubs will be closer to places where people live, work, and go to school, therefore fewer riders will need to reach Kennedy Plaza, he said.
Benoit referred to the perception of high crime in Kennedy Plaza, where he said he was once mugged. Creating smaller hubs, he said, will increase safety as policing becomes easier.
Benoit acknowledged the concern about the need for additional transfers. “But we have plenty of time to minimize any negative impact by reconfiguring routes if need be,” he said.
A new downtown transit connector (DTC) bus that runs every 5 minutes between Rhode Island Hospital and the three hubs will reduce the need for transfers, according to proponents of the plan. The DTC buses have been running since January and have shown the highest increase in ridership among all bus routes, according to RIPTA.
“I get that people don’t like change,” Benoit said. “But in my view [Kennedy Plaza] has proven not to work as the primary hub and we need to make major changes if we are going to have a vibrant public transit system in Rhode Island in the future.”
With an estimated 2023 completion date for the multi-station project, Benoit said there will several opportunities for the public to address design elements, route changes, and problems such as the transfer issue.
Otherwise, he said, “the status quo of incremental changes will lead to continued erosion of our transit system.”