Opinion

Possible RIDOT-RIPTA Merger Deserves Careful Consideration

Should the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) be taking over the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority?

With transportation’s big role in land use, environment, and climate change, we should note the idea floated by the governor’s office to merge RIPTA — and the Turnpike and Bridge Authority — into RIDOT. It’s getting some attention, as the idea has been presented to various stakeholders, including Grow Smart Rhode Island and the RI Transit Riders.

Though not on the agenda of the Feb. 19 RIPTA board of directors meeting, it drew quite a few, mostly negative, reactions during the public comment period — always a RIPTA board agenda item. Several speakers complained about a lack of RIDOT transparency in contrast to the public’s ability to communicate with RIPTA staff. The transit unions were opposed, saying RIPTA was run pretty well, RIDOT, being represented on the board was thus already involved, and things were going pretty well so there was no need to change the structure.

But my view about the possible RIDOT-RIPTA merger is nuanced; it’s worth a look. I don’t think things are going so well at RIPTA. With ridership down from about 21 million to a little more than 16 million during the past decade or so, it’s far from its potential to reduce congestion and pollution, attract progressive businesses, keep our energy dollars in the state’s economy, restore the core cities, and help in the fight against climate change.

There might be efficiencies in combining agencies, though, the burden of proof is on those proposing the merger to show them. There definitely is potential for better coordination between the commuter rail that RIDOT is responsible for and RIPTA bus and paratransit service. RIDOT could have more clout than RIPTA with the behind-the-scenes state budget process and in communications such as sending letters out asking municipalities to ensure the clearing of snow off sidewalks at bus stops.

Most important is RIDOT director Peter Alviti’s claim that the state agency could be far more successful in obtaining federal grants for transit, as they have been for highways. Such funding is needed to implement the state’s transit master plan, which calls for more frequent buses, more late-evening service, some new routes, and faster trips.

But that said, there is still a need for public oversight — a bus general manager reporting only to the RIDOT director isn’t good enough. There also needs to be opportunities for rider, transit advocacy, and public input built in, at least to replace the monthly public comment sessions at RIPTA board meetings, which staff and policymakers get to hear. The public also gets to hear about RIPTA’s plans, for example at the most recent meeting, about getting more electric buses and better South County services.

However, under RIDOT’s proposal, there is no assurance of public input. The RIPTA board would be reduced to dealing only with union and pensions issues.  It’s not clear who would get to decide policies such as fares and major schedule changes.

RIDOT’s record on public input is troubling and must be addressed if any merger legislation is developed. RIDOT ended the quarterly Environment Council of Rhode Island roundtables, and has proposed major changes in bus routes, including eliminating the central bus hub, with no opportunity for public and rider input, which shows the danger.

The bicycling community also has problems with RIDOT, as a previous bike coordinator was reassigned and now there is little communication even as RIDOT pushed through a plan, over considerable public opposition, to cut bicycle and pedestrian program funding.

While current RIDOT leadership is actively working to get the needed Pawtucket train station built and did develop some innovative programs, such as the Little Rhody autonomous vehicle project, and the summer Newport ferry, in general, the agency is inherently about building roads and bridges, not about operating and marketing public transit.

Thus, developing legislation to change the RIPTA enabling act needs to also address the RIDOT “mission” if it is to have wider responsibility.

Barry Schiller, a transit rider and longtime transit advocate, is a former RIPTA board member.

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  1. The federal government provides money straight to RIPTA, the RI government just wants to merge so they have access to these funds. Without RIPTA having complete control over their own funds, this money will be squandered away like RI always does. A lot of Rhode Islanders rely on RIPTA and we can’t have it be ruined.

  2. We are a small state, the size of one county in an average sized state. We are unlikely to consolidate with Mass or Conn at this time.
    But we can consolidate some state services and hopefully city services. We will most likely be forced to do so, because of the extra cost of the pandemic and an overall increased awareness of waste.

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