Transit Supporters Speak Up for Increased RIPTA Funding
April 3, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Advocates continued their push for increased funding for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority during a House Finance Subcommittee on Environment and Transportation hearing last week.
More than a dozen transit supporters from different advocacy groups, including RI Transit Riders, Young Voices, and the Providence Streets Coalition, spoke at the nearly 4-hour hearing on funding RIPTA and the state Department of Transportation for the next fiscal year.
The advocates raised concerns over a looming fiscal cliff the agency faces in 2025, when the federal COVID funding that has sustained RIPTA through the pandemic dries up, and the need to fund the state’s Transit Master Plan.
Before hearing testimony, the audience listened to a presentation on the proposed RIPTA budget, which meets some of the agency’s requests for the next year but does not address the future depletion of federal funding.
“The pandemic has been hard on RIPTA, as it has been on most transit agencies,” said RIPTA chief financial officer Chris Durand, emphasizing the need for future funding in addition to money to electrify RIPTA buses and follow through with plans to improve service.
At a RIPTA board meeting earlier this month, staff put forward a resolution calling on the General Assembly and the governor to fully fund the agency so that it can avoid the cliff and also improve service and make transit greener.
The resolution was tabled, but a new draft is expected to be presented and voted on at the next meeting, scheduled for April 12.
Barry Schiller, a former Transportation Advisory Committee member and transit advocate, testified that underinvestment will lead to a negative feedback loop and deterioration of the agency.
“Without more service, we’re not going to get a lot more riders,” said Schiller, suggesting that free service and an attitude shift is needed to encourage more transit riding.
Fares account for little of the agency’s revenue. Most of RIPTA’s funding is covered by state and federal subsidies, including money from the state’s gas tax.
Liza Burkin, the lead organizer for the Providence Streets Coalition, said the tax isn’t an adequate funding mechanism, reading a snippet of a Johnston Sunrise article from 2011 which described how officials had hoped to turn to other funding sources more than a decade ago.
Burkin suggested the Legislature look at the list of potential funding sources within the Transit Master Plan for alternatives.
Other RIPTA riders talked about the value they already see in the system and their desire to maintain and grow it.
Amber Ma, a rider who went “car-free” last August, said she frequently uses public transit and has been pleased with the quality of the service.
“Since August, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to rely on car-sharing just because it has been so convenient for us,” she said. “I want to see my tax dollars going toward more forward thinking on transit options for Rhode Island, and that includes fully funding RIPTA and other important initiatives in the transit master plan.”
One of the youngest witnesses, Cedric Ye, described how RIPTA allows him to get around with independence as a person younger than 16 and argued for the need to better support the system.
“Rhode Island’s underfunding of transit just appalls me,” said Ye, describing the state’s low per capita spending on transit compared to other New England states. “This is absolutely absurd and outrageous.”
“Continuing to show indifference to this issue will show the transit dependent communities, climate supporters, and tens of thousands of transit riders that our needs don’t matter, and our glaring inequality … lost opportunity, and environmental crisis is acceptable,” he said. “When my generation reaches voting age, we will remember what you do today.”
His comments were met with snaps and cheering from the audience.
A second hearing on the appropriations bill, H5200, has not yet been scheduled.