Transportation

Free Summer Shuttle to Link Newporters to Beach

The free summer bus service will transport residents from Newport’s North End to Easton’s Beach and to Sachuest Beach in Middletown, pictured above. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

NEWPORT, R.I. — A free bus service will bring towel-toting residents from the city’s North End to the beach this summer as part of a pilot program that marks the first of its kind in the City-by-the-Sea’s history.

The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s free shuttle program will link the North End to Easton’s (First) Beach and to Sachuest (Second) Beach in Middletown with two round trips a day on weekends and holidays from June 19 to Aug. 27. According to RIPTA, this service will expand beach access in an area where as many as 19 percent of residents don’t own cars and many can’t easily enjoy a day at the beach.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” North End resident Ellen Pinnock, 42, said. “I think it will open up a lot of family fun and engagement.”

Sandy-toed riders can catch beach services in other areas of the state, including the return of RIPTA’s Beach Bus program — June 19 to Aug. 22 — that connects the state’s urban core to South County beaches. The five other bus routes, which all begin at Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence, are largely confined to the South County area. A one-way trip to the beach costs the standard bus fare, $2.

RIPTA’s Flex Service on Aquidneck Island aims to fill transportation gaps, but according to Pinnock, a lifelong North End resident who works at mentorship nonprofit FabNewport, it’s a poor substitute for designated bus routes. The 2-mile journey to the beach can take as long as 2 hours, she said, and Spanish-speaking riders often face language barriers in communicating destinations to Flex drivers.

“It’s something that has been needed for a really long time,” she said of the beach shuttle.

“This is the first bus that has ever gone directly from the North End to the beach,” said Allyson McCalla, director of community relations and administration at Bike Newport, a lead partner with the Newport Health Equity Zone in getting the beach shuttle implemented. “We’re not only in the Ocean State, but we are the City-by-the-Sea and we have families who have never even been there.”

The coronavirus pandemic and a decline in hotel tax revenue interfered with a fledgling plan for Discover Newport to run a free hop-on, hop-off Aquidneck Island service last summer, according to RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian. He said this year RIPTA is working with community partners to make the beach shuttle a reality.

RIPTA’s partners include Bike Newport, Clean Ocean Access, the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, Church of Saint John the Evangelist in The Point, Trinity Episcopal Church in Queen Anne Square and Emmanuel Church on Dearborn Street.

RIPTA has applied for shuttle funding through a Care of Creation grant from the National Episcopal Church’s Task Force on Creation Care and Environmental Racism. The program awards $15,000 to $40,000 to projects that “provide resources for faith-based community organizing, theological reflection and response concerning the sin of environmental racism and reconciliation around the concept of environmental reparations,” according to the grant webpage.

RIPTA spokesperson Barbara Polichetti told ecoRI News “the grant funding has not been finalized yet, but Scott noted that we are committed to the project for this summer either way.”

RIPTA will gauge use on an ongoing basis throughout the summer, Avedisian said, to determine if the service will extend beyond the pilot program or if the model can be expanded.

The pilot program received criticism from the Middletown Town Council last month, with several members raising concerns that Newport residents might visit Sachuest Beach for free while Middletown residents continue paying to park. RIPTA and local advocates dismissed those concerns, noting that although there is a fee to park, the beach itself is free to all.

“I think that some education needs to happen and I don’t think that people have a clear understanding as to why this is significant for residents of the North End,” Pinnock said. “It’s a pretty marginalized group already. … I just don’t think it’s anything for people to be upset over or pulling that all-lives-type attitude when they don’t really have all of the facts.”

Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, an organization that pushes for clean waters and public beach access, noted there is potential for RIPTA to include Middletown in its routes down the line.

“Rhode Island is very special that we have constitutional rights to enjoy the shoreline and we need to make sure that people who live in Burrillville and Central Falls and Coventry have just as much of an opportunity to get to the water’s edge,” McLaughlin said. “Whether it’s a physical experience, an emotional state of mind or a spiritual need, we all need to be able to get there — and public transportation is a really good way to make it happen.”

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