Transportation

RIPTA Board Approves Revised Financial Plan Without Driver Cuts

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PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s governing board unanimously approved a revised annual financial plan at a quick meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Board members discussed the plan with authority staff and held a vote during a whirlwind meeting that ended, with approval of previous meeting minutes and public comment, less than an hour after it began.

At a special meeting earlier this month, RIPTA’s board heard about a version of the plan that would have eliminated 40 fixed-route driver positions that are currently unfilled and slashed its estimated deficit to less than $20 million.

In the revised plan voted on Nov. 29, RIPTA would maintain 36 of those positions.

Cost savings were taken from other parts of the authority’s budget, including cutting some subscriptions and inefficiencies in training and maintenance, as well as freezing travel (unless it is required by the Federal Transit Authority or to complete mandatory training), according to RIPTA chief financial officer Chris Durand.

“We are going after everything,” Durand said. “None of these changes are going to detract from what we are trying to do at the end of the day.”

Rhode Island Department of Transportation director and RIPTA board chair Peter Alviti thanked Durand and RIPTA staff on their work on the budget since the last special meeting.

“I think that is a great positive step,” Alviti said after the new plan was presented.

Board member Normand Benoit suggested that now that the annual financial plan is approved, RIPTA staff draft a request for proposals for a lobbyist who could advocate for further funding that could save the agency from the fiscal cliff it is still facing.

The deficit RIPTA faces, smaller under the new plan, isn’t unique to the agency. About half of the transportation authorities that responded to a recent American Public Transportation Association survey reported they would be facing a fiscal cliff within the next five years. The precarious financial situations of the nation’s transit authority are due in part to decreases in ridership after the pandemic. As federal funding that had kept many agencies, including RIPTA, afloat during COVID is used up, fiscal cliffs loom.

Benoit said it was now up to the General Assembly to fund RIPTA where it is short.

Alviti said “there needs to be a commonality on the message” coming from the agency, the board, and a potential lobbyist when asking for more money.

Liza Burkin, lead organization for the Providence Streets Coalition, called for cooperation among the board, staff, and transit advocates to move forward with plans to improve public transit.

“We need the cooperation of everyone in this room,” she said, turning to look at the audience behind her. Looking back at the board, she acknowledged that each person was sitting at the table because of their political capital, adding “I implore you to spend it.”

When asked how she felt about approval of the plan, Patricia Raub, co-coordinator of Rhode Island Transit Riders, said, “I have to think about it.”

“I’m a little bit disappointed that it seems to be, ‘Let’s tighten our belts and deal with what we have,’” she said, explaining that cutting the budget to keep the drivers doesn’t solve the problem of finding and hiring people to fill the positions.

“I do see the part about we’re going to use this as breathing room to try to move ahead,“ Raub added, “but I would have liked more effort to increase the funding in this budget.”

The next RIPTA board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 30.

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