TRANSIT FORWARD RI 2040: Where Is Providence Going?

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Courtesy of The Providence Journal

Are you fed up with crowded, congested roads?  Worried about your safety on those roads?  Stressed by the high cost of maintaining one or more vehicles?  Concerned about businesses moving out of Providence?  Or anxious about climate change every time the news focuses on weather disasters no one has ever seen before? If so, you are not alone.

Rhode Island’s Division of Statewide Planning, an office that produces plans about many subjects including transportation, has taken note. The office has long produced the State Transportation Implementation Plan (STIP) which lists the transportation projects to be implemented, their costs, and funding sources.  In recent years, in addition to funding the repairs of roads and bridges that almost everyone favors, the STIP has been prioritizing expensive highway capacity expansions (e.g., Route 95 north).

Yet, several factors have helped persuade planners to give serious consideration to substantially improving the transit system.   Awareness of the climate crisis includes realizing that over-reliance on motor vehicles is making transportation a leader in producing carbon emissions.  Also, downtown Providence, laid out before the auto age, has struggled to cope with the car even though much the city has been given over to highways, their massive interchanges, and parking.  Indeed, twenty-four percent of central Providence is just for parking!  Such allocation of space privileges drivers over non-drivers, who constitute twenty percent of the city.

So planners, with input from the public, advocacy groups, municipal officials, RIPTA and other agencies, under an initiative “Transit Forward 2040” developed the “Transit Master Plan” (TMP). This plan proposes a first-class transit system that could benefit the entire state by meeting the needs of current riders while enticing motorists to ride the bus.  In planning-speak the TMP is “a bold and ambitious plan designed to help make RI a better and more prosperous place to live, work, and play.”  Read the plan at Transit Forward RI – RIPTA.

A photo of Kennedy Plaza with people waiting for the bus, and an overlay with the heading "Rhode Island Transit Master Plan Program Benefits"

This plan was officially adopted by the State Planning Council in December 2020, making its projects eligible for funding without actually providing any funds. And so far, little funding has been allocated to start implementing this plan.

So, what is in the TMP?  Here are some highlights:

  • Most importantly, it calls for more frequent bus service, so frequent that on major bus lines you won’t need to consult a schedule. Iinstead, the buses would come every 10 minutes or so, as only the R line now does, running from Pawtucket to the Providence/Cranston border.
  • The TMP calls for longer hours of service on many lines (23 additional lines would have service after 9pm) so more folks can come and go to work on different shifts, or go to a meeting, a library program, or a movie in the evening and still be able to take a bus to get home.
  • It calls for many bus rides to be quicker by allowing buses to extend green lights to speed up the trips, especially on seven designated major bus routes in the Providence metro area and it recommends two new rapid lines, which if constructed would be light rail lines.
  • It calls for improved bus stops, more shelters, and transit hubs with increased amenities at key sites around the state, for example at CCRI-Warwick and URI.
RIPTA map of Providence
Bus Routes in Providence

While transit improvements are proposed across the state, the Providence area has the largest number of bus riders, and more changes are planned for the city than for any other part of Rhode Island. The TMP envisions a new fixed-route bus line, linking downtown Providence to Olneyville through Valley Street, an area that does not currently have bus service.  The plan will address what Providence bus riders have long complained about, that is, having to travel into Kennedy Plaza and then back out again to reach a destination across town.  The TMP proposes crosstown service on four new routes that bypass Kennedy Plaza, thus shortening travel times for those passengers.  The R-Line is currently RIPTA’s only Rapid Bus service, with 10-minute frequency most of the day.  The TMP will develop six additional Rapid Bus line, including ones along Elmwood Avenue, Chalkstone Avenue, and Cranston Street.

The TMP suggests that the commuter rail adopt electrification on the Providence-Pawtucket-Boston line as well as make more trips per day, trips that would be about 15 minutes quicker, as well as quieter, more reliable and cleaner.

The Rhode Island State house, with an MBTA train in the foreground
Boston Commuter Rail trains currently run on diesel on tracks right under electric lines.

These improvements would have many positive outcomes.  New talent and companies would be attracted to the state. The TMP estimates that the plan would result in 310,000 jobs having access to frequent transit, up from 97,000 now.  Economic activity could be expected to grow by about $560 million/year with a corresponding rise in tax revenue.  Transit-oriented development (TOD) around hubs could help address the housing crisis with lower demands on the environment.  These effects are already beginning to be seen at the new Central Falls/Pawtucket train station and bus hub, with new residential complexes under construction nearby. The TMP could help revive downtown Providence by providing good transit access from all directions.

TMP advocates also note that, with expansion of transit to underserved parts of the state and more buses per hour on many lines, an overwhelming majority of low-income people would have frequent transit nearby, seniors would be better able to “age in place,” and people with disabilities could live more independent lives.

Nearly all Providence residents live within a ten-minute walk from a bus stop, but less than twenty percent of them regularly ride the bus.  A better transit system could actually persuade many motorists to take the bus, at least some of the time. Readers were asked in a recent Providence Business News poll, “Would you consider taking a bus to work if its availability fit your schedule and location?”  A majority answered “yes.” Increasing bus ridership would have a significant impact on reducing the emissions from our gasoline-powered automobiles.  Those who might consider the bus are logically those with a fixed schedule into the city where they have to then pay to park their cars all day. Better transit could enable multi-car households to reduce the number of vehicles they need, at great savings.  A workable transit system is also a more immediate and equitable way to combat climate change than to urge people to purchase electric vehicles, which are currently too costly for many residents.

So how much would it cost to implement the TMP, and where would the money come from?  RIPTA estimates that its budget, now about $149 million/year, would have to more than double between now and 2040.  The exact amount will partly depend upon whether the agency builds two light rail lines or creates less-costly rapid bus lines.  Federal funds and gas tax revenue would be the two largest sources of revenue.  Planners have studied the way in which several other cities and states have recently financed similarly ambitious transit plans.  These funding sources have included income, property, and sales tax increases.  Other potential approaches would be a fuel tax, a rideshare or rental car tax, funds from Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), an east coast regional collaborative, or funds from Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) charges.  A legislative committee has recently started to study such possibilities, an examination that has grown more pressing as gas tax revenue has begun to decline.   Some combination of these various sources will likely be adopted eventually.

But Rhode Island will fully fund the TMP only if the public pressures the legislators to act.  Highway expansion has long outpaced other transportation without giving much thought to the negative consequences of reliance upon the automobile.  Now the bill has come due.  The climate is increasingly in crisis, those who don’t drive have limited mobility, and economic progress has been stunted.  Isn’t it time to rebalance priorities and build a first-class transit system for the twenty-first century?  If you agree, contact your state legislators, and ask them to fund the TMP.

To check what is happening with the Transit Master Plan, contact ritransitriders@gmail.com to subscribe to the RI Transit Riders’ e-list.

Patricia Raub is co-chair of RI Transit Riders, an independent, volunteer-led, grassroots group that was formed to preserve, expand, and improve public transportation in Rhode Island. https://www.ritransitriders.org/

Barry Schiller, a retired RI math professor, is a lifelong transit user and advocate, and has served on the RI Public Transit Authority Board of Directors and the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee.