Lack of explanation over state bus hub plan leaves riders with more questions than answers

LACK OF CLEAR EXPLANATION for why state officials are putting one idea for a new transit hub before the community for feedback has created questions and doubts among some riders, who think the central bus depot in Kennedy Plaza is still the best option. Pictured is Kennedy Plaza in Providence. /ELIZABETH GRAHAM

PROVIDENCE – State transportation officials will continue making their case at public meetings on Tuesday for a new public transit hub on Dorrance Street to replace the Kennedy Plaza bus depot.

But lack of clear explanation over the decision to focus only on the Dorrance Street proposal – when other options exist – have left riders with more questions than answers. Among them: what is the point of having multiple community input sessions if the state has already made up its mind? 

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R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti told PBN previously that Gov. Daniel J. McKee made the final call to pursue and solicit input on the Dorrance Street hub alone. But McKee has never publicly said that, or explained why.

Instead, the decision was revealed indirectly when Rhode Island Public Transit Authority sent out an email last month announcing that the upcoming hearings would “focus” only on the bus hub proposed for a series of empty parking lots on Dorrance Street.

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Other ideas – including RIDOT’s contested pitch for a multihub bus system – were not mentioned in that announcement at all. Only after direct questioning by PBN did RIPTA confirm that the multihub plan was dead.

Alana O’Hare, a spokesperson for McKee’s office, said in an email that although the hearings focus on Dorrance Street, a final decision has not been made yet. She did not offer further details on the process or why the state was only soliciting feedback on one idea.

Meanwhile, some riders and community groups say the framing of RIPTA’s public input sessions – the first of which happened in February with three more scheduled this month – is misleading, since the state seems to already have settled on a plan.

“It is very disingenuous,” said Dwayne Keys, chairman of the South Providence Neighborhood Association. 

Liza Burkin, organizer for Providence Streets Coalition, agreed that the conflict between the state’s messaging and its actions have been confusing, at best.

“Because of how badly the RIDOT process went and how badly the public trust was shattered … they’re trying to backpedal and be more inclusive while at the same time moving forward with this one idea,” Burkin said.

Alviti previously insisted that the RIDOT plan was a done deal, only to have that proposal scrapped amid increasing public outrage over lack of opportunity for feedback as well as potential consequences for riders. Based on that experience, Burkin was unconvinced that the new focus on Dorrance Street was set in stone, either.

“I don’t think anything is a done deal,” she said. “The multihub uprising confirmed that transit riders and community organizers do have a voice in this process.”

And some of those voices are still vying to keep the bus depot at Kennedy Plaza.

The Rhode Island Transit Riders in a Feb. 25  statement said they are not ready to endorse the Dorrance Street proposal. While they acknowledged some of the benefits that the indoor transit center would provide – climate-controlled waiting areas, bathrooms, shops – they questioned RIPTA’s dismissal of Kennedy Plaza as an option.

“We must point out that the rationale given in this public presentation for moving to Dorrance – that Kennedy Plaza has too little space for expanded service – is unconvincing,” the statement said. “We also believe that, in terms of transit principles, there is a strong argument for the hub to remain at Kennedy Plaza. But if a more decisive case is presented that Dorrance would actually be an improvement, with firm guarantees for committed funding and the amenities sketched in yesterday’s meeting, we may well support it in future.”

Keys also said the state had not made a convincing case for Dorrance Street over Kennedy Plaza based on its first public input session. Keys named a traffic study and more details on the kinds of retail and affordable housing that will accompany the transit center as the kind of evidence he was looking for.

“This is not a plan with riders in mind,” Keys said. “They are trying to fulfill the wishes of property owners who do not ride the bus [and] who want to turn Kennedy Plaza into their own little playpen. Stop trying to accommodate these privileged white men.”

Developers and community groups have backed the Dorrance Street hub, which provides not only a transit center but also affordable housing and commercial space within the five-story building. The $77 million project is proposed to be funded through a public private partnership, with the $35 million 2014 bond covering some of the public costs. 

RIPTA will hold virtual hearings on the Dorrance Street bus hub proposal at noon and 6 p.m. Tuesday. There will also be an in-person meeting on March 21, at Cambridge Innovation Center, and written comments will be accepted on RIPTA’s website through that time.

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

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