Plan to Merge RIPTA with RIDOT Scrapped
May 26, 2023
PROVIDENCE — The plan to absorb the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority into the state Department of Transportation is off the table, at least for now.
Just 24 hours before the bill, which was introduced by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, and would have given RIDOT authority over the state’s mass transit system and networks, was scheduled to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee, the legislation was quietly swapped for a significantly scaled-down version. Instead, the version heard in committee Thursday night (S0991A) would add an additional member to RIPTA’s board of directors, and automatically designate the director of RIDOT as its chair.
Despite stiff opposition from transit riders and advocates, who told lawmakers they were ignoring RIPTA’s actual problems, such as a lack of funding from the Legislature and a rapidly approaching fiscal cliff in 2025, the legislation passed out of committee unanimously.
“These bills are a solution in search of a problem,” John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, told committee members. “RIPTA isn’t broken, but it is underfunded.”
Advocates also criticized the track record of RIDOT director Peter Alviti, calling him a “brick wall” to community engagement. Under his leadership, the state agency canceled quarterly roundtable meetings with the public, advocated for a multi-hub plan to break up the existing bus hub at Kennedy Plaza, and shelved any action on the Transit Master Plan, according to advocates.
“That is the reason most people are here opposing this bill tonight,” said Liza Burkin, lead organizer with the Providence Streets Coalition. “It’s because of how resistant he has been to community engagement in the past.”
“Putting the DOT director as chair means RIPTA will have people running it who don’t care about transit,” Providence resident Greg Gerritt said. “They’re not going to get the attention they deserve, they’re not going to get the money they deserve.”
Nick DeCristofaro, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 618, the RIPTA bus driver’s union, told lawmakers he supported the bill so long as it included a spot for union representation on the board.
“What I find lately, the only thing we have trouble with at RIPTA is communication,” he said.
The bill’s substitution is an anticlimactic end to months of headlines. Ruggerio took aim at RIPTA earlier this year, calling for CEO Scott Avedisian, who has led the quasi-public agency since 2018, to resign after a no-bid contract was awarded to a lobbying firm without board approval.
Related legislation, introduced by Ruggerio, heard in committee earlier on May 25 would require procurement contracts of more than $10,000 to be approved by the RIPTA board of directors.
Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer for the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and a RIPTA board member, testified during an earlier bill that it was time for the General Assembly to exert greater oversight over quasi-public agencies.
“I’ve been really surprised by how little information is shared with board members; I’m even more surprised how little spending is shared with board members,” he said.
On May 17, the RIPTA board voted, in a closed executive session, to extend Avedisian’s contract as CEO by an additional two years, and award him a 2% raise consistent with the recent raise for bus drivers, bringing his total compensation to $181,795 annually.
But despite RIPTA getting saved from the chopping block, the agency still faces a $30 million shortfall by 2025, once federal COVID money runs out.
RIPTA revenue has frequently lagged behind spending, with the General Assembly stepping in to provide funding and fill gaps, but the amount provided is never enough to allow the agency to follow healthy financial practices.
A resolution to ask the Legislature to fully fund RIPTA was brought before the board for the third meeting in a row but received no vote, only a discussion.
Rhode Island’s transit problems are also its climate problems. The transportation sector accounts for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the latest emissions inventory from the state Department of Environmental Management, and despite the governor’s pledge to phase out gas-powered car sales by 2035, Rhode Islanders will have to seriously change the way they get around if the state is going to meet the ambitious mandates outlined in the Act on Climate.
By the state’s own admission, RIPTA is a key part of reducing transportation emissions. The Transit Master Plan, adopted by the State Planning Council in December 2020, if implemented would increase transit ridership by 60%, reduce vehicle miles traveled by 4%, and reduce GHG emissions by 231,500 metric tons annually.
“It’s embarrassing,” Burkin said. “We’ve got big problems to contend with and all we’re talking about is who’s in charge.”
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