Hubbub Over the Bus Hub

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Where in downtown Providence should Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) locate its bus hub, the heart of its operations?

Kennedy Plaza has long been both a transit center and a civic space.  Flanked by City Hall and the Federal Building and Courthouse, Exchange Place was renamed for an assassinated John F. Kennedy, who had addressed the crowds there as a presidential candidate. Yet, Providence never seems to get it quite right, and again the Plaza’s future is under discussion for RIPTA to relocate its bus hub. The proposed location is referred to as the “Dorrance site,” situated across from the Garrahy Judicial Complex and about four blocks from Kennedy Plaza, at Dorrance and Clifford streets,

Bus riders will obviously be affected by the dislocation, but even those not using RIPTA should see that a successful transit system will help reduce congestion and pollution, address climate change, and attract development to Providence’s struggling downtown, especially as a hub, by definition, connects outward in every direction.

Postcard of Exchange Place, 1915

Here is the history: After World War II, most people used the buses, adding up to over 150 million bus trips each year.  However, rapid expansion of highways, car ownership, and suburbanization cut ridership to about 20 million by the 1960s. The private bus company running buses couldn’t make a profit, so the state legislature established a Public Transit Authority to take over operations in 1966. The last stops of bus lines into the city scattered around various downtown sites were eventually consolidated in Kennedy Plaza, where a historic terminal building was reopened for passenger use. For a while, using a federal grant, an “auto restricted zone” (ARZ) was established in Kennedy Plaza, but some saw safety issues in its operation, and some traffic engineers wanted to restore a direct west-to-east -side route for motorists on Washington Street through the Plaza. The ARZ was abolished early in the 2000s, and the bus hub was reduced to the current size for both buses and traffic.

Even then, some critics felt Kennedy Plaza was not living up to its potential. In 2014, voters approved a $35 million bond to improve transit hubs throughout the state. There were hopes that those funds would be leveraged to attract major development including a bus station near the Providence railroad station. But with no such developer materializing, the high cost of building over the tracks, and the constricted road network there, that vision was abandoned.

In 2017, the city came to a broad consensus that it would be better to again reduce the bus footprint in Kennedy Plaza by putting all the bus stops along a two-way Washington Street, combining Burnside Park and the skating rink area into one large public space, and using the Plaza itself for more public purposes The cost, about five to ten million, seemed manageable. RIPTA supported the plan, but there was opposition.

Kennedy Plaza as a bus hub has been a crossroads of many groups of people, from students to the elderly, service and office workers. At various times of day, the space has been either unsafe or perceived so, to the point of discouraging use. Any location or relocation of a bus hub is overlaid with the fear of these perceptions spilling over to adjacent properties. Prominent, but not alone, in opposition to the 2017 plan was former Mayor Joseph Paolino, as noted in a public presentation by Rhode Island Transit Riders. In face of opposition, Mayor Elorza and Governor Raimondo proposed breaking up the bus hub into three locations.

Kennedy Plaza, currently the central bus hub

This time the transit advocates were strongly opposed, believing that moving the bus hub out of Kennedy Plaza would make the system more confusing and less convenient. The “multihub” plan was also opposed by the local Planning Association, the Environment Council of RI, the Providence City Council, and several community groups. Finally, a new plan proposed moving the bus hub to the Dorrance site. This plan is the current option.

The Dorrance site is situated closer to the Providence River in a more open space, but a little further from the center of the city. RIPTA issued a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) for developers to design, build, and operate a structure that would include the bus hub, stores, workforce housing, even parking and community space. As of now, RIPTA is evaluating the results of proposals, which were submitted in April. But there is no guarantee any bid will be acceptable. Costs for these proposals are unknown, but given the task, should be much more than the current voter-approved bond. Public-private partnerships such as envisioned here can mean considerable public funds may be needed.

Moving the bus hub from Kennedy Plaza to Dorrance has divided transit advocates. On one hand, Kennedy Plaza itself could be improved for far less than the cost to build a terminal with shops and housing. Kennedy Plaza is closer to where most people want

to go: City Hall, URI-Providence, banks, hotels, Providence Place, the Post Office, and more. However, Kennedy Plaza is spread out with some bus stops across Burnside Park, where a reputation for crime, drug-dealing, vandalism, and litter may be deterring more widespread use of transit in the state.

A Dorrance hub would be more compact with more opportunity for waiting indoors, and it could be more cheerful and feel safer, or as RIPTA claims on their web-site, the new hub would “improve the passenger experience through nicer amenities for riders.” An

indoor waiting room with seating would provide wifi, real time bus information, accessible bathrooms, phone charging stations, and there would be bike parking, covered outdoor waiting, call boxes, and more.

While most of these improvements might be done in Kennedy Plaza, RIPTA only leases its space there from the city. At the Dorrance site, RIPTA would presumably own and be in control of the transit space. The area close to Dorrance is developing as the “Innovation District” that would benefit from being transit-friendly. In this plan, many of the bus lines would still have a stop in or near Kennedy Plaza.

If you have an opinion, you will likely have an opportunity to express it as RIPTA, now in charge of the project rather than Rhode Island Department of Transportation, has promised “a robust period of public dialog” as the Dorrance project moves forward. The new Mayor apparently supports Dorrance but has not yet had much chance to influence the project. He did promise transit advocates to try to keep Kennedy Plaza in operation until the Dorrance is ready (RIPTA says in 2026 or 2027). Passengers faced difficult conditions and disruptions during the construction of previous Kennedy Plaza revisions, and riders don’t want that to happen again.

What happens to Kennedy Plaza without the bus hub is also an open question. Mayor Elorza had hired a firm that in 2021 came up with major, but expensive, revisions for the Plaza, Burnside Park, Waterplace Park, with no buses but elevated pedestrian walkways and the ice rink relocated to the middle of the Plaza. This plan did not go forward, yet the idea of a Plaza without bus passengers persists. As of now the Plaza is not lined with cafes or close-by shopping, and without transit riders it might be a desolate space with little to attract the public.

Readers should go to ripta.com/transitcenter to see what RIPTA says about the Dorrance project and you can sign up for their occasional newsletter about it. Visit Kennedy Plaza if you are not a bus regular and check out the Dorrance site at Clifford Street. A major decision, yet again, is about to be made about the shape and effectiveness of the transit system in the face of the new and developing Providence, especially along the Providence River. Let our voices be heard this time.

UPDATE: On August 23, the Rhode Island Transit Authority Board authorized negotiations with the consortium that made the one and only bid for relocating the bus hub for a first phase to plan to acquire a new site, assess it, and design it with public engagement.  This could cost up to $16.9 million of the 2014 transit bond. According to the Providence Journal, the five companies in the consortium are: Gilbane Development Company, Marcella Development, Plenary Americas, CUBE 3, and Jacobs.  The plan no longer assumes the site will be at Dorrance and Clifford Streets.  Nor is there any indication of total cost.  The project remains committed to providing space for buses, cars, comfortable waiting areas, shops, and apartments.  The plan quickly drew opposition from the Kennedy Plaza Resilience Coalition.

The Projected Dorrance Site

Barry Schiller is a retired Rhode Island College math professor, and is a long-time member of the State Planning Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee.  He served on the RIPTA Board of Directors, from 1995-1999.  He’s active in the RI Transit Riders.