Watching as the Bus System Drives Over the Cliff

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By this summer, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) will be facing a deficit of approximately $33 million.  The severe cuts in service and employment that may follow are the predicted cliff ahead in the road.

In May 2023 the RIPTA staff presented its Board of Directors with a document including details of just what “severe” means.  It means RIPTA will be forced to end all Sunday, holiday, and summer beach bus service.  Essential workers with Sunday shifts without cars will have to get to their jobs via more expensive Uber, Lyft, or taxi rides.  Families who have enjoyed getting to the shore by bus will have to explain to their disappointed children that they have no way to get there. And nearly four hundred RIPTA employees will lose their jobs.

Severe cuts will reduce the frequency and shorten service hours, directly impacting Providence riders, including the busy routes on Hope, Eddy, Cranston, Chalkstone, Admiral, and Smith Streets; Elmwood and Reservoir Avenues, as well as Providence to Newport, URI, and Woonsocket. Other lines will be eliminated altogether, including the route that goes to Butler Hospital along Elmgrove Avenue and to the zoo along Prairie Avenue.  Paratransit ADA service would no longer be provided in the corridors adjacent to these lines, impeding the ability of some Providence residents with disabilities to get to medical appointments, visit family, or shop for groceries. RIPTA will be forced to cut supplemental trips to Providence schools, making it difficult for students to stay for sports or other after-school activities.

Why is RIPTA driving toward a fiscal cliff?

  • Since Covid, with more people working at home, the agency has seen a revenue decline.  In fiscal year 2019, RIPTA budgeted about $26.4 million from passenger and “third party” fares, but with reduced ridership post-Covid, this figure is now down to about $20.4 million.
  • Simultaneously, with more electric and hybrid vehicles, gas tax revenue that funds transporation has also dropped. Already down about $4.7 million from what had originally been projected, it will decrease further each year.
  • During Covid, RIPTA and many agencies received federal funding to weather the economic downturn. RIPTA received $128.9 million in Covid funds that was used to balance the budget the last few years. This significant money will run out in the next fiscal year.

RIPTA’s fiscal crisis not a one-time problem.  The $33 million deficit forecast for next year is expected to grow to almost $44 million by FY2027.  If the Transit Master Plan (TMP), which includes plans to move the bus hub from Kennedy Plaza, is not implemented, another $34 million will be added to the deficit, an amount that will grow in each subsequent year.   Another $93 million will be needed by FY2027.

Scott Wolf and John Flaherty, writing in The Rhode Island Current, argue that the fiscal cliff is due to chronic underfunding.  They note: “According to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, Rhode Island ranks among the lowest in 2021 per capita state funding for transit at approximately $19 per person, especially when compared with other urbanized states in our region, including Connecticut ($68), Delaware ($101), Pennsylvania ($120), New Jersey ($143), Maryland ($199) and Massachusetts ($239).”

See https://rhodeislandcurrent.com

As relief funding to RIPTA is exhausted and other revenue sources contract, Christopher Durand, RIPTA’s Chief Financial Officer has warned, “We need to work to figure out a good long-term structure to preserve service” and expand operations. At this point there is no provision for the public’s participation in those considerations. RIPTA is currently in talks with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Governor’s Office to plan especially for the declining revenue from the gas tax, a decline that also affects the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority.

RIPTA will surely get some help, but there is fear that help will not be enough to improve its service, not enough to implement the TMP, which is crucial for the state to reach its Act on Climate goals.

A spiral of fare increases and reduction in bus service could start a “doom” cycle of fewer riders, less revenue, and further cuts.On the other hand, the state has already approved the TMP, and both voters and public officials, are more often recognizing the need for good transit to help address serious climate and housing issues. According to RIPTA board member James Leach, “Today, as we face the fiscal challenges of the modern era, RIPTA’s board, management, and state legislative officials are proactively collaborating to address these concerns well in advance. Our commitment is unwavering, and we are dedicated to ensuring that our mass transit system remains a reliable and accessible resource for the communities we serve.” 

Achieving adequate funding is by no means guaranteed, however.  Ultimately what happens about the cliff will be largely up to the General Assembly, where the public will have the opportunity to influence what is done.  Providence, with the most riders and the most service, will have the most to lose if the system goes over the cliff.  Everyone in the city, whether a bus rider or not, should be willing to help save and improve the transit system for the health of the economy and life of the planet.

Sign up for the RI Transit Riders email list to advocate for increased funding for RIPTA when bills are introduced in legislative committees next spring.

RItransitriders@gmail.com

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.