Report: Too soon to tell if RIDOT downtown transit plan violates Civil Rights Act

Updated at 1:27 p.m. on April 14, 2021.

PROVIDENCE – The R.I. Department of Transportation’s Office of Civil Rights says it is too early determine whether the state’s downtown transit proposal violates federal anti-discrimination policies.

The six-page report dated April 13 and shared with Providence Business News on Wednesday was issued in response to the Title VI Civil Rights Act complaint filed by Grow Smart RI and the South Providence Neighborhood Association in January. The groups in their complaint said the controversial Providence Multi-Hub Bus System constituted a civil rights violation because of its adverse impacts on existing riders, many of whom are minorities, low-income and/or non-native English speakers.

But the proposal, which calls for splitting up the main bus depot at Kennedy Plaza into three hubs throughout downtown, is not yet a final plan, which means there is “presently no Title VI violation,” according to the report. The report also pointed to ongoing analysis of the proposal by hired consultant Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., which includes its own evaluation of how the proposal complies with federal anti-discrimination policies. Until that data is available, there is “insufficient evidence to substantiate a Title VI violation,” the report stated.

RIDOT in an emailed statement from spokesman Charles St. Martin on Wednesday said the department expects the analysis to be completed “very soon,” although he did not give a specific date. The department also did not answer questions about when the project will become an official plan.

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“The complaints were filed prematurely,” the email stated. “This does not mean RIDOT and its partners will not address them. They will be addressed in the consultant’s report which includes Title VI compliance and future proposed Title VI compliance.”

Lack of public participation has also been a source of contention for critics, but the report noted that a formal public participation process for the project will start in late spring of this year. 

The report recommended RIDOT create and advertise a specific calendar for these meetings and make “updated plans” readily available to the public. 

RIDOT in its statement said it will implement these recommendations “expeditiously.”

In a written response, John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI, and Dwayne Keys, president of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, called the report “superficial and flimsy” and later, “bewildering.”

Although the report says the project is not yet a final plan, RIDOT has already issued a request for proposals for design and construction of the project in which it names August 2021 as the anticipated kickoff and “shovels in the ground” date.

While former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo backed the project despite criticism, Gov. Daniel J. McKee has not yet weighed in. In the letter, Flaherty and Keys call on McKee to turn oversight of the project over to the R.I. Public Transit Authority.

“RIPTA has the requisite expertise to skillfully develop an alternative plan with transit riders at the table so that we can finally get on with making needed improvements to the public space in Kennedy Plaza while also improving vital transit connections through Downtown Providence,” the letter stated.

McKee’s office did not immediately return requests for comment.

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

Updated to include comment from the R.I. Department of Transportation.