Ignoring Problem Won’t Make It Disappear: R.I. Public Transit Needs Statehouse Help
January 25, 2024
The only attention Rhode Island’s political leadership — I use that term with apprehension — gives the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and public transit in general is working to push bus riders farther from downtown Providence and ignoring taxpayer-funded studies that highlight the importance of non-car infrastructure.
Too few lawmakers speak about the importance of public transit and the need to grow RIPTA ridership. Instead, those who control the levers of power are fixated on turning Kennedy Plaza into a playground for the city’s wealthy landlords.
The many Statehouse lemmings are too afraid to go against the desires of the Senate president and the speaker of the House, because the state Constitution grants each office too much power. For example, both the Senate president and the House speaker can keep any bill they want from ever getting a hearing. Both positions of power are typically held by white men with antiquated ideas.
As RIPTA faces a significant budget shortfall, Sen. President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, remains focused on creating a new bus hub somewhere were his buddy Joe Paolino doesn’t have to view the riff-raff. Reclaimed highway land near Interstate 195 is the current far-flung location.
Gov. Dan McKee continues to pretend everything is hunky-dory. Following in a long line of governor shortsightedness, his recent State of the State address failed to mention the significance of public transit to many Rhode Islanders, most notably the elderly and those with disabilities, and its importance in reducing greenhouse gas emissions required by state law.
The governor’s proposed $13.68 billion fiscal 2025 budget leaves RIPTA with an $8 million deficit. His budget does include a measly $500,000 for the e-bike rebate program run by the Office of Energy Resources. (Your purchase of an e-bike — or a traditional bicycle — will be taxed, but there is no state sales tax on pollution-spewing powerboats and yachts.)
McKee and Ruggerio don’t ride the bus or a bicycle to work so why should they care about RIPTA’s budget shortfall or some rebate program they’re probably unfamiliar with. In fact, Ruggerio cares so much about public transit that he made the state Department of Transportation’s car-obsessed, Kennedy Plaza-busting director the RIPTA board chair.
Of the $10 million the governor’s office has proposed transferring from State Fiscal Recovery Funds (i.e., federal money) to RIPTA’s budget, some of it would be used to pay for an “efficiency review.” State officials noted RIPTA’s ridership has declined 47% since 2008.
Instead of reviewing RIPTA’s operations — yet again — perhaps state officials should examine the neglect oozing from Smith Hill. RIPTA has been chronically underfunded for decades. The same shortsighted solutions — job elimination and service reductions and cuts — are constantly regurgitated. The state’s motor fuel tax has long remained at 34 cents a gallon; RIDOT gets about 53% and RIPTA gets about 28%.
Rhode Island ranks among the lowest in per capita annual state funding for public transit at $19 per person, according to Federal Transit Administration data compiled by Transportation for America. Delaware, which also operates a statewide transit system, spends $80 per person more than Rhode Island does. Connecticut spends $68 per capita, while Massachusetts spends $239.
Little Rhody’s public transit is spectacularly limited because those who hold the state’s purse strings consider it an afterthought, at best, and don’t bother to use it or make the effort to understand its importance.
Note: Rhode Island Transit Riders has scheduled an action for Thursday, Jan. 25, at 1:30 p.m. at 269 Melrose St. in Providence during a RIPTA board meeting, to show support for public transit funding and not more service reductions and/or cuts.
Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.