Complaint: RIDOT downtown transit plan violates Civil Rights Act

Updated at 1:22 p.m. on Jan. 19, 2021.

GROW SMART RI and the South Providence Neighborhood Association have filed a complaint that argues that the downtown transit plan violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The complaint was co-signed by John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI, pictured above leading a protest march against the plan. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Two community groups have filed a complaint alleging that the state’s downtown transit plan violates federal anti-discrimination protections and are calling for the project to be stopped.

In two separate letters sent on Monday to the R.I. Public Transit Authority and R.I. Department of Transportation – the agencies overseeing the Providence Multi-Hub Bus System – Grow Smart RI and the South Providence Neighborhood Association say the project constitutes a violation of Title VI of Civil Rights Act. The clause prevents discrimination on the race, color or national origin, including in transportation services and projects as overseen by the Federal Transit Administration.

The state transit project, which would split up the main bus depot at Kennedy Plaza into three hubs throughout downtown, has drawn criticism from a host of community and business organizations, which have cited a lack of opportunity for public input before the plan was developed, and have said that the plan will result in adverse impacts on the existing RIPTA ridership – a majority of whom are low-income, disabled and/or people of color.

The letter reiterates these concerns, arguing that the plan would result in lower quality of transportation service for existing RIPTA riders, and saying such an impact would constitute “systemic racism.” It also cites the lack of “meaningful outreach” to engage the broader public on the plan, including those with Limited English Proficiency who are specifically named as a protected class in RIPTA’s Title VI Program.

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The letters call for RIDOT and RIPTA to “take action,” to stop the plan. Specifically, John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI, said he hopes RIDOT and the governor will withdraw the plan, and that RIPTA’s board of directors will vote against it. The board of directors offered opportunity for public comment during regularly scheduled meetings on the plan, but ultimately did not cast a formal vote.

Flaherty hopes the complaint will spur what Grow Smart and other advocacy groups have been asking for all along: to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan that includes public feedback and achieves the intended goals of improving public transit while giving Kennedy Plaza a facelift.

“We think those two are not mutually exclusive,” Flaherty said, adding that given the long history of work and review on an improved downtown transit system, a new plan could be developed within four to six months.

RIDOT and RIPTA each have detailed Title VI plans that lay out a process by which dedicated staff review, investigate, and potentially “take action” in response to Civil Rights Act complaints. Neither document gives a timeline for how long this review could take.

RIDOT spokeswoman Lisbeth Pettengill said in an email that the complaint has been filed “prematurely,” meaning that until the state completes and submits to the FTA its own review of the project’s Title VI compliance, there is “no basis” for the complaint. 

“Public comment is a key part of the process, and we will take comments into consideration as part of the process,” Pettengill said.

At this time, RIDOT does not anticipate changing its work schedule based upon the letter.

RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian also said in an email he could not offer a response until the Title VI analysis was completed.

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

This story was updated to include comments from RIDOT and RIPTA.

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1 COMMENT

  1. This is just another example of the small-mindedness shown by some legislators, community groups and in fact, much of the electorate. When you allocate resources based on emotion and lack of factual evidence or knowledge, then you are wasteful when what is needed is thinking big in terms of scope and relevance.

    Kennedy Plaza is one of the most beautiful public spaces in any American city and instead of encouraging widespread and diverse use, we have turned it into a large outdoor waiting room for a narrow group of people And people waiting for anything is not a pleasant experience, not to mention the associated problems of loitering, drug dealing, littering, and the attraction of predators. Such an experience is better diffused throughout the area rather than concentrated in one place. Or do what more progressive cities have done and put the facility below grade where riders are provided better comfort, protected from the elements, and area more easily policed.