Opposition Pans Fragmenting Kennedy Plaza Bus Hub
August 21, 2020
The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) got an earful of opposition during a recent online board meeting for a plan to break up the central bus hub at Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence. But it’s unclear if the agency has a say in approving the concept.
Kennedy Plaza is the primary starting point and destination for all RIPTA bus routes in the state. The proposed reorganization of Kennedy Plaza shrinks bus service there to 28 percent of its current operation. About half of all routes would move south of downtown to a new bus station in the Jewelry District. The remaining routes would shift to a remodeled terminal at the Providence train station on Gaspee Street.
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) promised that the additional hubs will reunite bus and train service in the city, especially for travel to and from Boston. The plan also offers more access to hospitals, the Statehouse, and state agencies on Smith Hill, according to RIDOT’s proposed Multi-Hub Bus System.
RIDOT said the new hubs will be modern transit centers with restrooms, indoor waiting areas, real-time information boards, ticket vending machines, bicycle racks, and bike/scooter share areas.
Callers to the Aug. 19 RIPTA board meeting unanimously opposed the concept, saying that fragmenting the bus system will inconvenience riders and discourage use of public transit. They panned the concept of a bus station on Dyer Street in the Jewelry District. The buildings are ill-suited for transit centers, and the remote location surrounded by parking lots, they said, will make it difficult to board connecting buses and it require more time to reach destinations.
“This multi-hub bus proposal flies in the face of what the voters in Providence want,” said Liza Burkin of the Providence Streets Coalition. “It’s going to create longer bus commutes, more and farther apart transfers, which will explicitly affect our elderly and disabled neighbors and create a more confusing and difficult transit system.”
Sharon Steele, president of the Jewelry District Association, said the added noise, traffic, and air pollution would be catastrophic and deter investment in the city’s so-called “Innovation District.”
“There’s no shred of evidence that this location is where the riders want to be, or want to have their bus hub located,” Steele said.
Others spoke of the ease of finding connections to schools and hospitals at Kennedy Plaza but feared that the fragmented hubs would make it harder to reach needed services.
Many praised the open and public vetting process RIPTA followed to decide past projects. But they criticized RIDOT for crafting the plan in-house with independent consultants, while excluding input from RIPTA and regular riders.
“And none of that has happened with the RIDOT process. It has been done in almost total secrecy,” said Amy Joy Glidden of the advocacy group Rhode Island Transit Riders. “This multi-hub plan is not acceptable.”
The bus rider group has an online letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo with hundreds outlining their objections to the project.
Rhode Island Transit Riders and other organizations have endorsed previous plans to redesign or relocate the downtown bus terminal, but the latest concept would hamper public transportation uses, they say.
“This entire process has been flawed from the beginning,” Steele said. “There’s been zero transparency, zero process, and a total absence of data.”
The plan is also opposed by Grow Smart Rhode Island and public transportation advocate and former RIPTA board member Barry Schiller.
In response to a question about the data used for studying transfers, RIDOT executive director Peter Alviti said the agency has reduced the frequency of transfers and aims to eliminate the need altogether.
“We continue to make progress on reducing the number of additional transfers by making shifts and revisions in iterative kind of analysis on the placement of routes and the routing of the various routes,” Alviti said.
It’s unclear which agency has the final say on the project. The Multi-Hub design was created from a 2014 bond referendum that awarded $35 million to RIDOT to improve transit centers.
Near the end of the recent meeting, RIPTA board chair Normand Benoit said “there may not be a vote because it’s not our project.”
Benoit offered that the board will hold another meeting on the proposal that will “offer a thoughtful response to the comments that have been made.”
Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff Nicole Verdi attended the meeting and reminded the board that, “We really want to try to make sure we can progress here and benefit RIPTA riders as well as the state.”
Verdi added, “Although it’s not a RIPTA project, it’s been a really collaborative project.”
After the meeting, RIPTA clarified in an email that “RIDOT, RIPTA and the City of Providence are working collaboratively on this project and will develop a joint recommendation.”
A follow-up inquiry about authority over the decision prompted RIPTA to say, “There has been a long public process over the past few years on different versions and the latest iteration of the plan is undergoing public review now. The next stage is to continue working on the design, working with third-party partners and conducting a Title VI (service equity) analysis.”
Public comments can still be be submitted to [email protected].
What this RIDOT plan actually does accomplish is to boot most of the bus passengers, disproportionately poor and people of color, out of Kennedy Plaza.
This was the publicly expressed goal of Democratic Party insider Joe Paolino because he thinks their presence there hurts his nearby property values. He had even suggested moving the buses to a industrial site on Allens Avenue. That was too outrageous even for DOT so they are sending most to a forlorn location on Dyer St surrounded by parking lots, garages, and the river where almost no passenger wants to go and likely to be quite scary after dark. Even the two remaining bus stop locations in Kennedy Plaza would be at opposite ends, far from each other (and Joe’s properties) and the terminal building, which is inconvenient and problematic for some passengers, especially if they have tight transfers or its bad weather or they have a disability.
But RITransit Riders is not giving up and is planning a press conference and rally as part of their opposition and will ask the support of other groups that don’t want to see RIPTA and its riders hurt, or are concerned about the incursion on the Jewelry District, or the waste of public money.
It is sad is that Joe and other downtown business interests don’t see transit as an opportunity as good transit service from all directions is the one transportation advantage they have over competitors in the suburbs where parking and avoiding traffic congestion will always be easier than downtown. That they want to throw away this advantage shows the continuing power of 1950s auto-only thinking, even in the age of climate change and concern over the loss of natural areas and woodlands to sprawl.
I would say if we started from a clean slate, having one central transit station right next to the train station makes the most sense…but since we aren’t starting from a clean slate, and Kennedy Plaza is working decently well as a central hub, why fix something and throw millions at a problem that isn’t really a problem? Sure, Joe’s properties are (likely) one catalyst, but the other is likely a need for a modern transit station with indoor waiting, bathrooms, times displayed etc that the article mentions.
"It’s good for everyone" they will say…but I agree that the walking between transfers for people who can’t walk / during terrible RI weather really is a showstopper to this plan.
And…didn’t we just renovate the plaza? https://www.providencejournal.com/article/20150116/NEWS/301169996
As long as we let folks who own a lot of real estate dictate policy we shall get policy that increases inequality and is an ecological disaster. That the state even entertains these idiotic plans to destroy Kennedy Plaza shows how messed up the rich are.
I think it’s interesting this article posted images for two of the proposed new hubs, but not the reconfigured KP — so here it is:
Did you know RI has some of the lowest transit ridership for commuting to work in the country? Just 2.5%, half the national average:
What is the reason for this? It’s impossible to know for sure, but one consideration is the only people using public transit in RI are those who don’t have any other option. This notion is supported by stats that 81% of RI transit riders don’t have access to a car, found on page 41 of this very in depth State analysis:
What does this knowledge tell us about the state of transit in RI, the current KP-centric approach? If the vast majority of riders are those with literally no other alternative, it’s not a good transit system. People with any alternative are choosing to drive, in the smallest state in the country that should in theory have some of the shortest and most efficient transit trips.
Why is this? First, a centralized bus hub in the middle of a downtown New England city, some of the tightest, densest zoning in the country, makes things inefficient. It makes no sense to take the bus for anyone with any other option if they’re doing any trip that wouldn’t naturally run through the center of the state — Pawtucket to North Prov, Warwick to southern East Prov, Cumberland to Olneyville, and even within the city, South Prov to Olneyville, Elmhurst to Silver Lake, Wanskuck to East Hill — none of these trips make sense through a central hub if you have a car as an alternative, and they definitely don’t make sense through one singular hub causing congestion and concentrated pollution downtown.
One other reason? The environment at Kennedy Plaza is just not safe. Drug dealing, firearms, flagrant disregard for smoking bans, all of these add up to a place you don’t want to take your kids on the way to the beach, or deal with on your morning commute — that place just so happens to be a required stop on effectively ALL but the shortest bus trips in the state under the current system. If you’ve spent any real time in KP, you can understand why a parent who can afford a car for their teen would have no interest whatsoever sending them on the bus with a transfer, even if it’s the more responsible environmental choice.
Contrary to the hysteric anti-progress crowing of the groups opposing this very good plan, the proposed changes will, if enacted, very likely increase overall ridership, capturing for the first time in decades for RI people who have alternatives but will choose to ride the bus, because they can get to the train for a trip to Boston or NYC without having to walk from KP. They’ll be able to go work at the new Innovation center, or enjoy the new downtown park and pedestrian bridge, without having to terminate their bus journey half a mile away amidst drug dealers and cigarette smoke. And those headed directly downtown, or making transfers that make sense at the very center of downtown, will still do just that — a full 30% of bus traffic is staying right in Kennedy Plaza, so the idea that riders are being ‘kicked out’ is just nonsense.
I’ll finish off with a quote from Gustavo Petro: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”
In it’s current state, the rich are never going to ride transit in RI, because it’s inefficient, leaving it dominated by those with no other option who, unfortunately, are often involved in activities that drive away those in society with more privilege. This plan correctly recognizes the inefficiency of a single central hub and that the solution to unwanted behavior in proximity to transit is not about more enforcement (waiting for the comment "Why not just put more police at KP?", yeah, that tracks in today’s political environment), but about making a system average people want to use, instead of only serving the bare minimum of those who have no other option.