RIPTA: New downtown bus hub will take ‘no less’ than 3 years

THE RHODE ISLAND PUBLIC TRANSIT AUTHORITY said it will take "no less than three years" to complete a new transit center to replace the bus depot at Kennedy Plaza, sparking concerns from riders and community groups. Pictured is Kennedy Plaza in Providence. /PBN FILE PHOTO/ELIZABETH GRAHAM

PROVIDENCE – Three years is the minimum time the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority says it will take for plans to build a new, indoor transit center on the edge of the I-195 Redevelopment District. 

And after nearly a decade of waiting for a project to materialize, some say that pace is too slow, especially as the city of Providence forges ahead with a redesign of Kennedy Plaza that will limit existing bus use there.

RIPTA spokeswoman Cristy Raposo in an email Tuesday defended the timeline, saying that “simply ‘fast tracking’ the development of this site will not yield a better result as we are setting the stage for a 30-plus-year relationship with the eventual operator of the building. RIPTA is in the process of building the team that will deliver this project, which includes legal, technical and financial expertise that is knowledgeable about P3 development.”

That did not sit well with John Flaherty, deputy director for Grow Smart Rhode Island. While Flaherty has backed the Dorrance Street proposal, he called the RIPTA three-year minimum “concerning.”

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“I’d like to see it presented as not to exceed that timeframe,” Flaherty said.

He acknowledged that the project is complicated, both in the public private partnership to foot the $77 million bill as well as the logistics of a mixed-use project combining affordable housing, parking and a transit center. But given the already delayed process – eight years and counting since voters approved the $35 million bond to help fund a transit center overhaul – Flaherty was more than ready to see some concrete action.

The seemingly slow pace of progress on the downtown transit hub stands in sharp contrast with the state’s plan to speed up many other infrastructure projects. Gov. Daniel J. McKee in January announced that the state would “fast track” more than 100 road and bridge projects worth $2.1 billion to capitalize on federal funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

To Patricia Raub, coordinator for the RI Transit Riders, it’s another example of how the state has long prioritized road and bridge projects over public transit. While Raub was not in a rush to have the Dorrance Street transit center up and running – she still had reservations about the proposal – she worried about what would happen to riders as the city of Providence overhauls Kennedy Plaza.

Mayor Jorge Elorza in 2021 announced plans for a $140 million redesign of Kennedy Plaza aimed to foster community gathering and improve safety. While the proposal includes six bus berths around the circumference of the plaza, renderings for the project show the central bus depot area would be replaced with a pedestrian space including a café and performance stage.

The first stages of the project, slated to start construction in spring 2023, are focusing on pedestrian improvements to Washington Street and East Approach, which will not change existing bus or car routes, according to Timothy Rondeau, a spokesman for the city planning department. Other elements of the project have not been scheduled, dependent upon when the city can secure funding, Rondeau said in an email.

While RIPTA in its community presentations sought to assure riders that there will be a place for them to go even after the city redesigns Kennedy Plaza, Raub was skeptical. The city, not RIPTA, owns the land.

Flaherty shared her concerns, recalling when a series of 2015 renovations closed the plaza for six months, relocating bus stops temporarily in a way that made it difficult for riders to get around.

“Riders, rightfully so, want to make sure they’re not going to be faced with a lot of disruption,” he said.

Joseph R. Paolino Jr., a downtown developer and former Providence mayor, suggested that the new bus hub could open at Dorrance Street within a few months, using what is now a series of empty parking lots until the building is constructed. That would free the city to continue its work on Kennedy Plaza, while letting riders adjust to the new location, he said.

“To wait three years to move the buses, that would be stupidity,” he said.

Both Flaherty and Raub emphasized the need for McKee to make a public commitment to a smooth transition for riders, and to ensure that the proposed amenities for the new transit center – an indoor waiting area, bathrooms, retail space and more – are not eliminated as the project takes shape.

“It would be appropriate to hear from the governor more broadly,” Flaherty said. “First and foremost to hear him personally commit to seeing this project through in a way that addresses rider needs.”

While McKee has reportedly worked behind the scenes to halt a previous version of a new downtown transit center amid public criticism and to introduce the Dorrance Street idea for public feedback, he has not said anything publicly. McKee’s office deferred inquiries for comment to RIPTA to respond on his behalf.

Raposo in an email said RIPTA is committed to honoring rider requests in the new transit center including indoor and outdoor waiting areas, accessible bathrooms, parking and bicycle storage, and public access to WiFi, among others.

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

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