Bond deadline puts pressure on RIDOT bus hub plan as opponents push alternatives

PROVIDENCE – The clock is ticking in earnest on efforts to revitalize a languishing downtown public transit system, with a Nov. 4 deadline to issue the remainder of state bond funds.

The funds have most recently been earmarked for the R.I. Department of Transportation’s proposal to split up the main bus depot at Kennedy Plaza across three smaller hubs in downtown. But amid continued opposition from riders and community groups, Gov. Daniel J. McKee has pumped the brakes, asking RIDOT to do a “deeper dive” into the details of the plan, according to Director Peter Alviti.

Meanwhile, transit activists are seizing what they see as an opportunity in the delayed implementation of the Providence Multi-Hub Bus System plan to push for alternative ideas. The RI Transit Riders on Aug. 31 hosted a virtual meeting laying out four other options and inviting community feedback. 

“I think the governor is, at this point, looking at what plan would the public get behind,” said Patricia Raub, coordinator of RI Transit Riders. “If we have a plan we prefer, we need to start talking about it.”

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Unlike RIDOT’s plan, which would divide bus hubs across three destinations – keeping some of the routes at Kennedy Plaza and adding hubs at the Providence train station and on Dyer Street – the options favored by transit riders still rely on a single-hub model.

Splitting up the hubs makes it more difficult for riders, a majority of whom are disabled, low-income or people of color, to get to their destinations quickly and affordably, advocates say. RIDOT’s plan has also drawn criticism for its lack of public input prior to the plan’s unveiling in July 2020. 

While Alviti at the time said the proposal was a done deal, RIDOT has since walked that back, delaying a construction timeline that would have put shovels in the ground this fall and is planning additional public hearings.

The hearings, originally slated to happen in spring 2021, have still not been scheduled because of an additional review requested by McKee, Alviti said. While former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo threw her weight behind RIDOT’s proposal despite concerns, McKee has taken a more moderated stance.

In a press briefing on Aug. 31, McKee insisted that he wanted agreement before moving forward.

There‘s not going to be 100% agreement, but there has to be some agreement,” McKee said. “Right now, everyone’s sitting on their own island.”

Indeed, at least two of the ideas presented by RI Transit Riders on Tuesday have already been dismissed by Alviti in previous interviews as “doomed to fail.” One would create a central bus station on Dorrance Street across from the Garrahy Courthouse, while another would connect the Providence train station to a hub on the Statehouse lawn. A version of this emerged in 2017 but failed to move forward due to lack of interest from private funding sources.

RI Transit Riders also remain interested in a 2018 plan from the city of Providence that would have improved Kennedy Plaza while creating new hubs at at Providence Station and on Eddy Street at Rhode Island Hospital, with a dedicated right-of-way “transit emphasis corridor” tying the new hubs together along with the rest of downtown. The city has since abandoned that plan, with Mayor Jorge O. Elorza expressing support for RIDOT’s latest multi-hub version.

The idea that drew the most initial support in the virtual meeting, however, called for basic improvements to Kennedy Plaza – terminal upgrades, enhanced pedestrian safety and traffic signals – and spending the remainder of the $35 million bond on bus hubs across the city and the state.

McKee on Tuesday also indicated he was open to spending the bond money in another way.

We’ve got to have a plan in place before we bond the dollars,” he said. “They have to come together, otherwise we’re going to spend that $35 million somewhere else.”

The language of the bond referendum approved in 2014 calls for transit improvements across the state but does not specify where or what types of projects it must include. While the state has already issued $15 million of the $35 million bond funds for the multi-hub plan, how that money is spent can still be amended, according to RIDOT spokesperson Lisbeth Pettengill.

Achieving consensus on any option might still be difficult, especially with the bond deadline rapidly approaching, said John Flaherty, deputy director for Grow Smart Rhode Island.

Still, Flaherty said he was “encouraged” by McKee’s interest in exploring a more agreeable alternative.

“The worst outcome in our eyes would be implementation of the multi-hub plan,” Flaherty said. “It appears we may be averting that.”

Grow Smart was one of two community groups that previously filed a Civil Rights Act complaint with RIDOT earlier this year, alleging the plan violates anti-discrimination laws by making it harder and more expensive for minority riders and those with low incomes to use public transit. While RIDOT’s Office of Civil Rights dismissed the complaint, saying the plan was too preliminary to consider the merits of potential violations, Flaherty believed the complaint helped delay the plan’s implementation.

Raub also credited community groups’ continued opposition through letter writing and other advocacy efforts to halting progress on the RIDOT proposal.

Both Raub and Flaherty, however, were reluctant to commit to one alternative at this point.

It’s wonderful to be in a situation where we consider other choices,” Raub said. “But we need to give more thought to it. We want to make sure whatever we come up with is responsible to the riders and in everyone’s best interest.”

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