OFF TRACK? In June, Wickford Junction ridership decreased 28 percent, from an average of 201 people each day in June 2012 to 144 people this past June, DOT said. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
OFF TRACK? In June, Wickford Junction ridership decreased 28 percent, from an average of 201 people each day in June 2012 to 144 people this past June, DOT said. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

There are plenty of seats available on trains heading to and from Rhode Island’s commuter-rail stations in Warwick and North Kingstown this fall. Empty parking spaces in the large, new garages next to those stations are also abundant.
Nearly three years after Rhode Island began expanding rail service south of Providence, passenger volume to T.F. Green Airport and Wickford Junction remains light.
The economic slump that reduced demand for office space in downtown Providence also reduced the number of people needing to find a way into the city each day and the congestion that might convince them to take mass transit.
In June, the last month figures were available, Wickford Junction ridership decreased 28 percent, from an average of 201 people each day in June 2012 to 144 people this past June, according to the R.I. Department of Transportation. June 2012 was the second full month of service to Wickford.
At T.F. Green, average daily ridership fell 12 percent year over year, to 184 people in June from 209 people in June 2012.
The falling numbers appear to have jolted state officials into action.
Starting in July and running through the end of this year, DOT stopped charging the $6.75 daily fee to park at the T.F. Green commuter garage and $4 fee at Wickford Junction.
So far, however, the impact of even that significant savings to commuters has been modest.
An average of 75 cars per day parked at the 640-space commuter garage at T.F. Green in August, only three more cars per day than during August 2012, according to DOT.
There was more progress at Wickford Junction, where an average of 80 cars parked in the 1,100-space garage in August, an increase of 40 percent from the 57 average cars parked during the same period in 2012.
It’s likely ridership also has seen at least some spike at Wickford since parking became free, but DOT did not have data to confirm.
“This is still a startup,” said Michael Lewis, director of the R.I. Department of Transportation, about commuter rail south of Providence. “That being said, we would want more people riding. … We would like it to increase more rapidly, and we are going out with an aggressive marketing campaign and incentive programs to shift the mode for people in that part of the state who are used to driving.” Robert Cioe, who operates the Wickford Junction parking garage for the state and owns the adjacent shopping center, attributes the disappointing traffic on the rails to the economy and weak Providence job market.
“People don’t realize [Wickford Junction] was sized when the Rhode Island and Providence economy was booming, and we thought we could break even with people going to Providence,” Cioe said. “The parking garage is one of the victims, so to speak. When you have 1.5 million square feet of vacant office space, that is a lot.”
Cioe said with free parking in effect and advertised on highway message boards, the number of cars parking in Wickford Junction has now risen to about 100 cars per day on a good day.
While remaining optimistic, Cioe said the heart of the ridership problem is that the vast majority of people using the Wickford Junction garage are going to Boston and not Providence.
Until more people need to get to Providence, Cioe said, those who do go will be able to drive in and find parking at rates that make it difficult for “park-and-ride” from the suburbs to compete.
The state pays Cioe $721,659 annually, which the parking fees were supposed to offset, to operate and maintain the Wickford garage. The R.I. Airport Corporation operates and maintains T.F. Green.
In the battle to provide inexpensive parking, things may get tougher for Green and Wickford Junction before they get better.
Johnson & Wales University is preparing to open a 700-space parking garage downtown, the state is expanding a surface lot near the capitol while adding another, Brown University’s plans for redeveloping the South Street Power Station include a city-financed, 600-space parking garage and the Interstate 195 Commission wants the state to build a new parking garage next to the Garrahy Judicial Complex. Providence opens its latest promotional video by touting the number of empty parking spaces available.
Building the station and parking garage at Wickford Junction cost $44 million, and the Interlink connection to T.F. Green, which the train station and garage are part of, cost $267 million.
Despite the headwinds, transportation officials are sticking to predictions made when Wickford Junction opened last year that it would serve 1,500 riders by 2020.
Lewis points to commuter rail in Providence, which struggled with weak ridership for a decade before taking off in the late 1990s, as reason for optimism about train usage further south.
“Public transit options are for the long term,” Lewis said. “There are going to be cycles in state or city economies that are going to change demand. Where you are going to get demand is when the economy turns around. More people [will] mean more congestion and more desire to get to commuter rail.”
In addition to free parking and marketing, Lewis said the state is working to increase the number of daily trains south of Providence, now 10 scheduled per day, and perhaps begin weekend service.
To increase train frequency, Rhode Island has to make it work with both the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority, Amtrak and freight operators.
If increased train frequency is not possible, Lewis said RIDOT at least hopes to adjust the schedule so that trains leave at more convenient times for commuters.
Looking ahead, commuter trains to T.F. Green and Wickford Junction have been described as steps in a rail expansion plan that would include service all the way to the Connecticut border and additional stops along the route at places such as Cranston and Pawtucket.
But Lewis said new infill stations along the existing route are not necessarily the answer to adding ridership and could erode it further given current conditions, because they would increase the travel time to Boston.
One answer to that problem, Lewis said, would be to start a Rhode Island-based railroad independent of the MBTA that would make trips within the state while not having to worry about serving a primary market in Massachusetts. That possibility, along with all the other questions about the future train network, will be addressed in the state rail plan being put together as part of the Rhode Map RI statewide planning effort now underway.
Critics of the commuter-rail expansion south of Providence have pointed to the fact that both the T.F. Green and Wickford Junction stations were not located in population centers and question whether the “park-and-ride model” is the best way to develop transit.
At T.F. Green, and to a lesser extent Wickford, there are plans for development around the airport that could boost activity there, but any growth is still several years out.
William Lawrence, a transportation consultant in South Kingstown who used to manage real estate for the MBTA, said there are currently a number of barriers standing in the way of commuter-rail ridership to Providence, in addition to the economy.
They include the inconvenience of getting from the Providence train station to many offices and the comparatively cheap cost of parking in or taking a bus into the city.
“They need to level the playing field with auto and bus,” Lawrence said. “They need to make getting from the station in Providence to where people are going more convenient. There’s not much of a feeder system, the concentration of jobs is not immediately around the station and the bus terminal is three blocks away.”
Lawrence’s own commuting history illustrates the challenges Rhode Island rail faces.
For years, Lawrence commuted from South Kingstown to Boston each morning, but instead of getting on the train at Wickford Junction or Warwick, he drove to Providence and parked there, usually at Amtrak’s $9-per-day lot, before riding to South Station.
“They should increase the parking cost in downtown lots so it is competitively priced and T.F. Green or Wickford is comparable with what one would pay to park downtown,” Lawrence said. •

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  1. What was it $29 million for the train station in Wickford?

    Thank goodness the East Bay still has the bus and the bike path. We used to have train tracks but they were removed for the bike path.

    We just aren’t spending enough money in the West Bay what with the hundreds of millions spent on Quonset Point access roads and upgrades, the $60 or so million a year that gets sucked up from the State and sent to the West Bay via URI oh yeah and the train station.

    East Bay? Yes we must pay our own way for bridges because with only 2 tolled bridges in the State someone has to pay to maintain the other 750 or so bridges in the State.