Parking, bus plans ‘Link’-ed

Rhode Island officials are poised to make two of the largest investments in downtown Providence parking and mass-transit infrastructure in years.
Two independent but connected projects in Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee’s state budget proposal would turn underutilized downtown lots into a new public parking garage and two new R.I. Public Transit Authority bus hubs.
The two projects carry estimated price tags in the neighborhood of $40 million each and one of the bus hubs will likely share a location with the parking garage at the Garrahy Judicial Complex on Dorrance Street.
Both Garrahy complex projects are being billed as way to boost redevelopment of the nearby former Interstate 195 properties now branded as The Link.
The Garrahy parking garage is an old concept revived by I-195 Redevelopment Commission Chairman Colin Kane, who describes it as a necessity to prevent the roughly 20 acres of former highway land from remaining vacant.
But Kane is also enthusiastic about the idea of a bus hub within the garage and said improved RIPTA service in the neighborhood will also help develop The Link and minimize the amount of automobile parking that will need to be built there in the future.
“It is really cool and dovetailing with the efforts the city is making,” Kane said about the combined parking complex/bus hub idea. “I am thrilled to be going to market in a couple of weeks with a story to tell about how we can provide transportation.”
As central as The Link is to the state’s economic-development strategy, by itself the second RIPTA bus hub planned adjacent to the Providence Train Station could be a larger project than the combined Garrahy proposal.
That’s because the hub is being looked at as part of a public-private partnership including, potentially, expansion of the train station, more garage parking and mixed-use development of the vacant land next door owned by Capital Properties Inc.
“A lot of people came together and a lot of great things happened in the 1980s when the train tracks and river got relocated,” said Todd Turcotte, vice president of Capital Properties. “Thirty years later maybe this is the next step.”
The new bus hubs planned for Garrahy and the train station are part of a multifaceted reworking of the RIPTA bus system and its historic terminal at Kennedy Plaza. City and civic leaders have made revitalizing the area in the center of downtown a priority, but the rows of bus berths make it more difficult to create amenities and attractive, pedestrian-friendly environment.
The state has already dedicated $1.7 million to slimming down the bus lanes starting this spring, but building two more bus hubs would relieve pressure and give RIPTA better options there.
Transportation officials are quick to point out that creating the new bus hubs will not remove all buses from Kennedy Plaza or prevent it from being the busiest bus stop in the state.
With the two new hubs, buses will still stop at Kennedy Plaza. They just won’t terminate there and instead will continue on to either the train station or Garrahy to park before making another run.
In addition to freeing the plaza from parked or idling busses, the change will allow for a greater number of buses into downtown than can currently fit into the plaza.
“This is one of these things where the planets are coming into alignment and you have to be ready to strike,” said R.I. Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis about the convergence of RIPTA restructuring, train station upgrades and The Link project. “Over the course of last year, because of RIPTA’s issues, they had a comprehensive analysis of how they can eke out the best service with the existing budget they have. That produced the recommendation that Kennedy Plaza was a limiting factor in growth. They hit a ceiling on ability to produce bus service.”
Both the bus hub and Garrahy garage plans are in extremely preliminary stages and officials caution that in many ways the budget items are placeholders for proposals that will be fleshed out in the next few months.
This is perhaps most clear at the train station, which involves the largest number of stakeholders.
Turcotte said discussions over partnering with the state on a train station were at such early stages he couldn’t speculate on what form they may take, but that Capital Properties continues to look for someone to build on the land under the lease.
Upgrades could also be in the works for the station itself, which is owned by the federal government and has become one of the busiest on the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail system, as well as a bustling Amtrak stop. Lewis said the station has reached capacity and the bus-hub work could be an opportunity to seek federal high-speed rail or transportation infrastructure grants to improve it.
Back at Garrahy, Lewis said it has yet to be decided whether a new bus hub would go inside a new parking garage or separately on another of the many undeveloped properties surrounding the courthouse.
Fleshing out some of these details will take place within the next 60 days in discussions with stakeholders and as consultants Nelson Nygaard finish their findings on RIPTA operations, Lewis said.
This will give state lawmakers and Rhode Island voters a better idea of what the project will entail before they decide whether to pay for it.
Under Chafee’s plan, the bus hubs would be financed by borrowing – right now $40 million – approved by voters in a November referendum.
The Garrahy parking garage, under Chafee’s plan, would also be financed through borrowing, but in this case the General Assembly, and not voters, would decide whether to go ahead with it.
The budget authorizes the state to spend up to $45 million to finance a 1,250-space parking garage with 13,800-square feet of retail space on the current Garrahy surface lot.
The garage plan has faced criticism for its estimated expense – $36,000 per parking space – at a time when so much of downtown Providence is already used for car parking and similar investments have not been made in transit.
But the legislative commission created to study the garage is ready to recommend the state build it, according to Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, its co-chair, with the only remaining questions centering on financing strategies.
Kane, the I-195 commission chairman, believes that the parking garage will allow substantial absorption of The Link land in seven to 10 years, at which point parking revenue from the facility will have fully repaid the construction debt.
“Our models are showing absorption in seven to 10 years, but if we don’t have transportation solutions, there will be no absorption,” Kane said. “The goal will be, as the area becomes more live-work through housing around our parcels, the parking requirements become lower and you don’t have to build 5,000 spaces, it could be 2,000. That is a cultural evolution that is happening.” •

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