Diverse Coalition Seeks Beefed-Up RIPTA Funding
December 4, 2023
PROVIDENCE — A coalition of local groups is calling for $110 million in funding to rescue the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority from an impending deficit, ensure fair wages and training for drivers, and implement the state’s Transportation Master Plan (TMP).
Like public transit agencies across the country, RIPTA faces a fiscal cliff in 2025 when federal COVID relief runs out.
At a rally last week in Kennedy Plaza, several speakers from different corners of the transit world asked for the funds as the governor’s office prepares its budget for the next fiscal year, and emphasized how RIPTA impacts a wide array of Rhode Islanders.
“RIPTA is a working-person’s issue,” said soon to be head of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and RIPTA board member Patrick Crowley. “Unless RIPTA is fully funded, people can’t do their job.”
The principle applies to both the Rhode Islanders who use RIPTA and the drivers who operate the bus routes, he said.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 618 president Walter Melillo discussed the need for competitive wages for drivers to fill about 40 operator positions that are currently vacant. The driver shortage, an issue facing transit systems around the country, has already cut the frequency of several RIPTA lines on a “temporary” basis last fall.
RIPTA’s driver wages are lagging behind other operator jobs, Melillo said.
“The well-being of our drivers is inextricably linked to the well-being of the riders, that’s why we’re up here together,” Liza Burkin, lead organizer for the Providence Streets Coalition, added.
Sen. Meghan Kallman, a Democrat representing Providence and Pawtucket, who sponsored legislation to create a free-fare pilot program on the R-Line, told the crowd that being a small state could be an asset in trying to solve RIPTA’s funding issues.
“Rhode Island is a really little place,” she said. “We should be able to get from one end to another.”
With a statewide transit system already in place, Kallman noted, it should be easier to move forward with improvements, so riders get better service and the state can start to aim for its Act on Climate mandates, which are partially addressed in the TMP.
Kallman’s colleague in the General Assembly, Rep. David Morales, a Democrat representing Providence’s Mount Pleasant, Valley, and Elmhurst neighborhoods, said in a $9 billion state budget “the funding already exists” to do so.
In addition to union members and lawmakers, Jonathan de Jesus and Michelle Arias of Progreso Latino, as well as representatives from the Providence Student Union and Community Libraries of Providence, explained that RIPTA is essential for getting to and from services and school.
“The journey is just as important as the destination,” de Jesus said.
The variety of groups in the coalition is intentional, according to Kallman.
Kallman, Crowley, and Burkin met last summer to discuss how they could bring together the interest groups that all have a common concern with RIPTA but may not have known of each other or worked together before.
There is an increasing awareness that “public transit is infrastructure, it’s part of the foundation in which everything else operates,” Kallman said.
“I think this is a moment that everyone needs to take seriously,” she added. She noted she hoped her colleagues in the General Assembly and Gov. Daniel McKee will beef up funding.
Rhode Island Transit Riders co-coordinator Patricia Raub said she was delighted by the rally and how many different groups showed up to fight for full RIPTA funding.
An avid 55-line rider, Raub said she believed sustainability and improvement for the agency are within reach.
She said she would be happy if her line came every 20 minutes on weekdays, rather than the 35-minute intervals it’s been.
“I’m not asking for much,” she said. “I’m not asking for every 10 minutes.”