RIPTA touts benefits of new downtown bus hub in first community meeting

A PROPOSAL TO CREATE a new, indoor transit center on Dorrance Street in Providence was the subject of a virtual meeting and community input session hosted by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority on Thursday. / RENDERING COURTESY OF UNION STUDIO ARCHITECTURE AND COMMUNITY DESIGN

PROVIDENCE – After outrage over the lack of public input on a prior downtown transit proposal, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority stressed the importance of community feedback as it forges ahead with a new bus hub plan.

The state transit agency Thursday hosted the first of three virtual hearings on plans to replace the central bus depot at Kennedy Plaza with an indoor transit center on a series of empty parking lots on Dorrance Street. The five-story building 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. 

Greg Nordin, chief of strategic advancement for RIPTA, made the case for why this larger, dedicated transit space would best serve the agency’s growth plans – which include adding new routes and buses to existing routes – while making it easier and more comfortable for riders. 

Community members, many of whom identified as riders, peppered Nordin with questions: How will the public-private partnership intended to pay for the $77 million project work? What will the transition from Kennedy Plaza to a new hub involve? What about bathrooms, food and social services for riders?

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“The amenities are really key,” said Steve Durkee, founder of DBVW Architects and a former board member of RIPTA. “It can’t become a Port Authority-type environment.”

Those who probed into details such as traffic and route patterns did not find the answers they were seeking, since those plans have not yet been developed.

Nordin and RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian stressed that the idea is still in its infancy, merely a series of concept drawings at this point.

“Tonight opens a dialogue on the state of transportation in the city of Providence,” Avedisian said, inviting people to continue to submit comments “so we can get this right.”

Whether that dialogue also includes keeping the bus hub at Kennedy Plaza remains unclear. RIPTA in its original announcement of the public hearings said that Kennedy Plaza was not an option in light of a separate, $140 million redesign the city has planned for the central downtown area.

The city, however, has said its project can accommodate keeping buses around the circumference of Kennedy Plaza.

Asked by rider Charles Feldman on Thursday whether Kennedy Plaza was still on the table, Nordin did not respond directly. Instead, he said space constraints and other challenges make Kennedy Plaza a less-than-ideal spot to host a transit hub. 

“For people who don’t feel like this is a good spot, we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make this a good experience,” Nordin said.

The emphasis on community input comes after a prior plan from the R.I. Department of Transportation that sought to divide up the central hub at Kennedy Plaza across three hubs in downtown. Opponents, including riders, denounced the lack of public input on RIDOT’s plan, known as the Providence MultiHub plan, as well as the fact that a multihub model would add time, cost and accessibility issues for bus riders.

Majorie Waters, a community organizer with the Rhode Island Organizing Project, said riders are most interested in the service, not the building.

Nordin also named service as RIPTA’s top priority. The new hub on Dorrance Street will also not change the time it takes to transfer from one bus to another by more than 1-2 minutes, and will shield riders from inclement weather since it is indoors, Nordin said.

RIPTA will host two more virtual meetings on its plans, at noon and 6 p.m. on March 8. There will also be an in-person meeting on Monday, March 21, at Cambridge Innovation Center, and written comments will be accepted on RIPTA’s website through March 11.

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

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