Contested downtown multihub bus plan scrapped

STATE OFFICIALS HAVE QUIETLY scrapped a contested plan to split up the central bus hub in Kennedy Plaza, instead focusing on an alternative option for an indoor transit center on Dorrance Street in upcoming public meetings. Pictured is Kennedy Plaza in Providence. /ELIZABETH GRAHAM PBN FILE PHOTO

PROVIDENCE – State officials have quietly scrapped a contested plan to split up the central downtown bus hub across three locations, appearing to move ahead with an alternative, single-hub option.

The R.I. Department of Transportation and R.I. Public Transit Authority announced on Feb. 10 plans to hold a series of public meetings on a new downtown transit hub to replace Kennedy Plaza. The upcoming virtual hearings – slated for Feb. 24 and March 8 – will “focus” on an indoor transit center on Dorrance Street, the agencies said in their announcement. The announcement contained no mention of RIDOT’s previous plan to divide up Kennedy Plaza bus hub across three hubs in downtown. The multihub plan drew backlash from riders, business and community groups, but RIDOT insisted the proposal was still on the table as of December, promising it would also be subject to public vetting.

No one has said publicly that the controversial plan was no longer being considered. 

RIDOT referred all inquiries for comment to RIPTA, which is overseeing the upcoming hearings.

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Cristy Raposo, a spokeswoman for RIPTA, confirmed in an email on Feb. 11 that the multihub plan was “no longer an option.” Who made that call – or when – is unclear.

Raposo said the multihub option was not possible because of a separate, $140 million redesign the city of Providence has planned for the area that includes Kennedy Plaza. However, when the city announced its ambitious improvement project in March 2021, Bonnie Nickerson, the city’s planning director, suggested the two plans were not incompatible.

Tim Rondeau, a spokesman for the city planning department, reiterated Nickerson’s comments in an email Tuesday. The original city project – which is not about transit – included space for six bus berths along Kennedy Plaza, and was “flexible enough” to work with whatever transit plan the state agreed upon, he said.

John Flaherty, deputy director for GrowSmart RI and an outspoken critic of the multihub plan, said he thought Gov. Daniel J. McKee, who previously urged RIDOT to pump the brakes on its plan, was behind the decision.

“It seems the governor’s choice was to narrow it down to the option that isn’t universally hated by the community,” Flaherty said.

McKee’s office did not immediately respond to inquiries for comment.

Flaherty was glad to see the Dorrance Street alternative move forward, since the single-hub model solves the problems that a multihub model would have created, such as adding time and access issues for riders. However, Flaherty acknowledged that the state’s communication could have been better.

“It doesn’t instill confidence,” Flaherty said, adding that the previous statements by RIDOT and the governor “sent mixed messages.”

RIDOT in December said that the upcoming public hearings would include the Dorrance Street and multihub options as well as a third choice to keep Kennedy Plaza in its current configuration.

Downtown developer and former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. did not know the multihub plan was no longer being considered until being asked to comment for this story. Paolino had supported the multihub plan and later, the Dorrance Street option. 

Paolino was not upset that one of those choices was no longer on the table, providing the alternative actually happens.

“My patience is running out with it,” he said, referencing the decades of downtown transit plans that have failed to materialize.

Among the criticisms of RIDOT’s original proposal was the lack of public comment and vetting. Cliff Wood, executive director for The Providence Foundation, said he was glad to see the state soliciting that input now with upcoming hearings on the Dorrance Street proposal.

Wood didn’t see much point in giving the multihub plan the same chance for public feedback, noting that it was “pretty flawed,” and had already been deemed a no-go by most community groups and transit riders.

If they’re deciding what they want to spend time and energy discussing, if it doesn’t seem viable, let’s not waste our time,” Wood said.

Crucial to the upcoming hearings will be solidifying the details of the Dorrance Street option, which at this point is mostly conceptual, Flaherty said. 

As proposed, the project calls for a five-story building that 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. The estimated $77 million project would be funded in part through the $35 million state bond voters approved in 2014.

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