Brown Students’ Report Outlines Potential Funding Sources for RIPTA


The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is staring at an $8 million budget shortfall. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — As a fiscal cliff looms for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, local university students decided to look for solutions themselves.

The student-led, non-partisan think tank Brown Initiative for Policy, also known as BIP, recently published a 29-page paper on potential RIPTA funding sources.

The Brown University student paper includes suggestions both to help the authority avoid an $8 million deficit in the coming fiscal year and increase long-term funding to improve Rhode Island’s transit system and fulfill the state’s Transit Master Plan.

It also highlights advocates’ concerns that the state’s gas tax, one of RIPTA’s main funding sources, is not stable and will likely wane as more electric vehicles get on the road.

BIP member and one of the paper’s authors Maddock Thomas said it took himself and four other students several months and dozens of interviews with transit stakeholders to complete the project.

Funding solutions suggested include tapping into unused federal funding, ride-share taxes, tolling revenues, and parking fees.

Of the proposals, Thomas believes allocating some of the existing sales tax revenues from ride-shares to RIPTA is “the most immediate and most viable solution.”

In the paper, the students outlined how Uber and Lyft rides tend to take passengers away from transit.

Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C., use ride-share taxes to fund transit.

Currently, Rhode Island’s 7% sales tax on ride-shares goes into the state’s general fund.

But a bill in the General Assembly (S2169) would place a 75-cent surcharge on all ride-share fares that originate in Rhode Island. Half the fee would go toward road improvements in the municipality where the ride started, and the other half would help fund Transit Forward 2040.

“The act would also establish a restricted receipt account for the benefit of RIPTA funded by sales tax collected from ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft,” according to the bill.

On top of possible ride-share tax and fee revenues, the paper also suggested that the state take better advantage of leftover federal money, known as August funds; reallocate toll funds toward transit; and reconsider increasing the cost of parking in Providence.

But a range of issues including timing and political will complicate those other options, Thomas said.

“Clearly, none of these solutions entirely will deal with the funding gap,” he said, referring to the coming deficit, “to say nothing of the $110 million a year which is needed to actually implement the transit master plan.”

Thomas said he hopes that advocates and officials will use the paper to campaign for more funding to get RIPTA to a better place.

For Thomas, the desire to maintain and improve public transportation is in part personal. He started the transportation subgroup within BIP because of his own love of transit.

“I was one of those train kids,” he said. “Growing up, I had a model train layout in half my room.”

Thomas is from Atlanta, where the subway mostly travels in a cardinal direction pattern. “It is not very helpful to get anywhere else,” he said, but he lived close to a stop and still took it anyway because it could get him to his dad’s house.

“It would take like an hour and a half versus 40 minutes driving, but I’d do it because I didn’t have a car,” he said.

RIPTA’s statewide access, free for Brown University students, helped draw Thomas to Providence. A sophomore concentrating in urban studies, he wants to make transportation a part of his post-college career.

But for now, he wants to continue digging deeper into transit issues and sharing that information with the community, so that BIP becomes “a resource there to support them … showing up when needed.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Maddock Thomas as saying it would take $410 million to implement the transit master plan. He misspoke. The amount to implement the transit master plan is $110 million.


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  1. Mr. Thomas, I applaud you. Public Transit is a worthy cause. But put on your thinking cap. How many financial crisis must RIPTA and the state experience before the problem is learning? The government and the management have not learned and therefore are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Check the history of RIPTA. How many crisis have they experienced. This is not the first. RIPTA was born on financial crisis. Remember UTC?
    All options and sources should not be discounted. In return the citizens should demand quality, safe and efficient service. Remove the politics from the “Public Transit Authority.” Politics in business, and make no mistake about it RIPTA is a business, increases the cost.
    Have you considered taxing the kilowatt per hour at fueling stations?
    Have you considered an annual income tax to support transportation? There over 1 million Rhode Island residents.

  2. I commend Brown students for taking this action. By the way, there is also a House ride-share fee for transit bill, H7678.
    RI supports transit almost entirely with a part of the gas tax, providing about $40 million/year. But that is already in decline as hybrid and electric cars (EVs) increase that do not pay any such tax, and this is also of concern to RIDOT that needs gas tax revenue for road maintenance and more. The scale of the total gas tax, about $145 million/yr, is so large that there will need to be some kind of fees on EVs so they pay their share. There is some behind-the-scenes process led by RIDOT about this, but as far as I know, no public participation. We do have an interest that any EV fees incentivize smaller, lighter EVs that use less resources, make lower demands on the grid, and since EVs are heavier than gas cars, do less wear and tear on the roads and are less dangerous to other road users

  3. Mr. Dean you obviously missed the boat on this one.
    Poor and indigent people are having enough problems finding transportation. If you raise the costs you will reduce ridership causing a further reduction in bus routes and more people losing their jobs because they have no transportation.
    Public Transit fees should be lowered so that people would find them cost effective.
    Increasing bus routes rather than decreasing them would increase the likelihood of people using the buses.

  4. I think a Vehicle miles traveled fee is gong to be necessary for roads and transit. But a Brown student would not know that the history of RI includes a variety of dedicated funds that the legislature scopps for other projects whenever it feels like it, so even dedicated funds are not safe

  5. SUVs and light trucks need to be taxed. Maybe registration fees based on vehicle weight like some states are doing.

    Automated speed cameras should be put up everywhere. Revenue from fines should go to maintain infrastructure along bus routes that make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

    Tax parking spaces/asphalt and incentivize transit-oriented development that includes green infrastructure. That may increase the population of riders along public transit routes.

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