Alternative downtown bus hub plan gains support amid continued delays in RIDOT public hearings

AN ALTERNATIVE bus hub in Providence on Dorrance Street across from the Garrahy Judicial Complex is gaining traction in the community. / RENDERING COURTESY OF UNION STUDIO ARCHITECTURE AND COMMUNITY DESIGN

PROVIDENCE – More public input was the reason state transportation officials said in April that they were pumping the brakes on a contested plan to break up the Kennedy Plaza bus hub. 

But more than six months later, the anticipated public hearings have still not been scheduled and new alternatives have emerged. One in particular, which would build a central, indoor transit center on a series of empty parking lots on Dorrance Street across from the Garrahy Judicial Complex, is gaining traction with support from riders, business groups and downtown property owners. 

Unlike the R.I. Department of  Transportation plan, which would split the central bus station at Kennedy Plaza across three hubs, the Dorrance Street proposal relies on a single hub that makes it easier, cheaper and  more convenient for riders to traverse the city. The five-story building would also include ground-floor retail, an indoor parking garage and a top floor of workforce housing apartments, complementing the commercial and housing development planned for the adjacent I-195 Redevelopment District.

John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI, called it the Goldilocks solution – financially and logistically feasible with strong community backing. 

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But where this alternative might also get the public vetting planned for the RIDOT proposal is unclear.  

Lisbeth Pettengill, a RIDOT spokesperson, said in an email on Tuesday that the state agency was working with the R.I. Public Transit Authority and the governor’s office to “consider all options” and present them in public forums. But Pettengill did not specify if the Dorrance Street pitch was one of those options.

Meanwhile, Gov. Daniel J. McKee remains noncommittal. While he has previously suggested he wanted a transit plan with more community support than what RIDOT came up with, he appeared put-off by the $77 million price tag of the Dorrance Street alternative when questioned in a media briefing on Tuesday. 

McKee said he wanted a project that did not cost more than the $35 million – the amount of the 2014 bond approved, but largely still unspent, for state transit upgrades. 

Flaherty pushed back against McKee’s money concerns, highlighting the availability of federal grant funds and potentially some of the state’s federal stimulus dollars to cover the money gap for the Dorrance Street proposal.

“At this point in time, money is not the obstacle,” Flaherty said.

Instead, he named lack of consensus as the “intractable problem” that has plagued efforts to revitalize the state’s languishing public transit system since the state bond funds were approved seven years ago. What the Dorrance Street proposal has, which prior iterations have lacked, is that consensus, Flaherty said.

Cliff Wood, executive director of The Providence Foundation, is among those who have thrown their weight behind the Dorrance Street transit hub.

“It’s one plan that hits a lot of goals,” he said, naming improved and safer transit for riders, housing and commercial development as some of those goals. 

And it is these enhancements, in addition to the bus hub itself, that have made the proposal so attractive to community members, Flaherty said.

“What organizations got behind was the total package,” he said. “To strip out elements to cut costs would mean to lose that support.”

Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr., a prominent downtown developer and property owner who helped develop the design and cost estimates for the Dorrance Street transit center, also stressed the need for mixed-use development to maximize the space.

“For $35 million we could easily just build a bus station, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the best thing for the city or the state,” Chace said. “Why would we use an acre-plus of land in that district for a one-story building?”

Mayor Jorge O. Elorza in an emailed statement on Tuesday called the Dorrance Street proposal “a positive step forward,” though he did not state whether he preferred this plan over the RIDOT project.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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