Transportation

RIDOT Denies Racial Discrimination in Plan to Break Up Kennedy Plaza

Under the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s multi-hub plan, Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence would no longer be the central hub for public transit. There would be multiple smaller hubs but no central location. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Grow Smart Rhode Island and the South Providence Neighborhood Association, both opponents of the state plan to break up the bus hub in Providence’s Kennedy Plaza, filed a federal civil rights complaint in January against the state over the project, alleging it’s discriminatory.

The organizations lodged complaints with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits exclusion or racial discrimination in federally assisted programs.

Opponents claim dispersing the downtown bus facility to two new, out-of-the-way hubs will harm riders who are disproportionately people of color and low income. They call the idea a flawed plan, claim the process has largely ignored those who would be most impacted by the changes, and say it’s being done to satisfy downtown real-estate interests. The state says otherwise.

The complaint cited RIPTA statistics that 53 percent of its bus riders “identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color” and that 80 percent of riders have a household income of less than $35,000 a year. The complaint also said the move will result in riders having to make more transfers, leading to longer commute times.

On April 14, 85 days after the complaint was filed and 25 days longer than RIDOT’s own response guidelines, the state agency responded. No Title VI violations of the Civil Rights Act are evident, according to RIDOT’s six-page response.

To make its case, RIDOT points to Question 6 on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot that voters approved. The bond question funded enhancements and renovations to mass transit hub infrastructure throughout Rhode Island.

While voters did approve the $35 million bond, the question didn’t specifically approve the Multi-Hub Bus Plan that RIDOT and former Gov. Gina Raimondo have pushed.

Question 6, Rhode Island Mass Transit Hub Infrastructure Bonds, 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.”

As for the dismantling of Kennedy Place, the response notes that RIDOT and RIPTA have been coordinating together on the project since 2014 and “have been continually modifying concepts based on the needs of the transit riders, public input, and stakeholders.”

“RIDOT’s team is comprised of design consultants with expertise in mass transit projects in large urban environments across the nation,” according to the department’s response. “Two of our lead Project Managers are certified Project Management Professions (PMP). Input from these design teams has and will continue to be integral to the design of the Multi Hub system to make sure that the needs of the transit riders are met.”

It also noted that the schedule for public meetings, expected to to start later this spring, will follow all Title VI requirements. It said numerous public outreach meetings have occurred during the past several years, and noted that last July “select community stakeholders were invited to view and comment on the most recent multi bus hub plan.”

Grow Smart Rhode Island called the state’s written response to the complaint “superficial and flimsy” and noted that it “disregards the significant, disproportionate and negative impacts that RIDOT’s plan will impose on people of color, disabled and low-income populations.”

The Providence-based nonprofit also called the conclusions in RIDOT’s five-point response “bewildering,” noting, for example, that it states that “a final plan has not been identified for this project” and “therefore there is presently no Title VI violation.”

But according to RIDOT’s own request for proposal for design-bid-build services, a construction contract advertisement date is scheduled for June 11, with “shovels in the ground” by Aug. 27. In early November, RIDOT director Peter Alviti participated in a press event with Scott Avedisian, RIPTA’s CEO, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Raimondo stating that the multi-hub project was moving forward.

Questions weren’t allowed during the 18-minute pep talk, 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.

Grow Smart noted that it’s approaching seven years since voters approved the $35 million transit improvement bond, and there’s nothing to show for it but $2.1 million spent on bond issuing costs and legal and consultant fees. The organization said RIDOT’s inability to move this bond project forward is outlined in a 3-minute presentation by House fiscal staff during an April 7 House Finance Committee hearing.

In a joint statement Grow Smart and the South Providence Neighborhood Association call on Gov. Daniel McKee to turn the project over to RIPTA.

“RIPTA has the requisite expertise to skillfully develop an alternative plan with transit riders at the table so that we can finally get on with making needed improvements to the public space in Kennedy Plaza while also improving vital transit connections through Downtown Providence,” according to the statement.

The Kennedy Plaza Resilience Coalition — Rhode Island Transit Riders, the South Providence Neighborhood Association, the Providence Streets Coalition, Direct Action for Rights and Equality — are scheduled to hold a rally and march Saturday, April 17, at 2 p.m. to publicize the reduction of bus lines in Kennedy Plaza and their distance from the Terminal Building.

Marchers will walk from Burnside Park to the various bus stops and the Terminal, to demand that the McKee administration halt the plans to break up Kennedy Plaza.

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  1. RIDOT is run by people who do not get justice, equity, climate or the economy. It seems to primarily be focused on on the desires of big landlords rather than the long term health of RI. RIDOT seems quite amenable to growing inequality, despite the fact that growing inequality harms the economy and worsening the climate crisis by destroying the bus system will radically harm the economy. RIDOT really needs to remember that Kennedy Plaza is built in an old salt marsh and if the climate crisis worsens KP is under water.

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