What’s Up with the Downtown Transit Hub?

View Above Kennedy Plaza. Part of "Re-Imagining Providence City Center Report" 2021 courtesy of Arum/Stimson/Ultramoderne Unified Vision for Downtown Providence

A crucial meeting presenting options for the transit hub in Providence will be held at the Amica Mutual Pavilion, “The Dunk”, on May 13, 4-7pm.  The purpose is to obtain community feedback related to RIPTA’s plan to develop a new transit center that would replace Kennedy Plaza as the central bus connection point.  RIPTA’s plans lie at the center of several key concerns in Providence: housing development, economic prosperity, climate goals to reduce emissions, and the reduction of traffic congestion.

The RI Public Transit Association (RIPTA) buses  begin and end many of their routes in Providence in Kennedy Plaza.  Over 11,000 people terminate their bus journeys in Kennedy Plaza (KP), and another 4000 change buses there daily. Its location near the train station and in the center of downtown make it an integral part of the city’s (and state’s) transportation system.

Almost since the day that KP was designated as the bus hub in downtown, critics voiced concerns and various plans have been floated to change or move it entirely. And, at the same time, proponents of Kennedy Plaza tout its convenient location and advocate for money to be spent on renovations, rather than building a new bus hub.

In January, RIPTA approved a contract with New Wave, which consists of local companies Gilbane and Marsella Development, plus Cube 3, a national architectural, interior design and planning firm with an office in Boston, Plenary Americas, a Toronto based investment firm specializing in P3s (public private partnerships), and Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering.  RIPTA awarded New Wave Partners a $16.9 million phase 1 contract (using the 2014 bond that voters approved to “fund enhancements and renovations to mass transit hubs…”) to develop the project up to a 60% design for a transit building.  They are holding the first of several public meetings on May 13, and for many, the key question is where will this transit center be located?  New Wave is indicating that they will suggest several possible sites for further investigation.  Once New Wave has finished Phase I, RIPTA is to decide whether or not to go ahead with Phase 2, having Next Wave build a new transit hub using a public-private partnership model (P3).

Here are the location options that are being discussed:

STAY IN KENNEDY PLAZA: The Kennedy Plaza Resilience Coalition is advocating for improvements to be made to Kennedy Plaza.  Indeed, in 2017 and 2018, the city of Providence had a robust public process on how to do that.  That resulted in a plan for a reduced bus footprint having most stops put along a 2-way Washington St, plus enhanced security, lighting, pedestrian flow and shelter amenities, all for a cost of about $10 million.  It had a broad consensus including city planners, riders, community groups, and RIPTA staff.  Yet it seems to have disappeared after politically connected downtown realtor Joe Paolino filed suit against the plan, and soon after RIDOT came up with a widely opposed scheme to break up the hub into three “multihubs” that now also seems to have disappeared.

RIPTA’s Transit Center website doesn’t mention the 2017 plan and it denies real estate interests are behind the move out of KP.  It does reject staying in KP, saying it is ultimately a public park which RIPTA does not own or control, and the bus stops are quite spread out.  It can indeed be daunting for some riders to cross Burnside Park after dark to access stops on KP’s north side.  The Plaza has been allowed to get rather shabby the last few years, and that, plus security perceptions, can make KP a difficult sell to get more people to use public transit, but still, if no alternative is found acceptable and affordable, KP has to remain a possibility.

DORRANCE STREET: For awhile, a Dorrance site (near Clifford St) seemed the alternative.  It had renderings, RIPTA newsletters, Board support and the RI Transit Riders group was open to it as a possibility, considering the KP limitations.  But now it seems less likely as some at RIPTA have indicated that the geometry of the streets there may make bus operations too difficult.

Map showing location of proposed Dorrance Street Transit Center, courtesy of RIPTA

RAILROAD STATION: There has always been interest in locating the bus hub adjacent to the railroad station.  The RIPTA website says they have looked into it, but “unfortunately the development and usability of the space is extremely limited.”  Indeed, the tracks, river, State House lawn, and limited roadways in the area, already congested, do seem constricting, and it can be extremely expensive to build over the tracks, even if Amtrak allowed it.  Still, it might be one of the sites New Wave will consider.

PARCEL 35: Finally, some feel that Parcel 35, (“Siberia” to use Governor McKee’s term for a remote location) which is alongside the I-95 service road near Clifford St. is the favored option.  It is already owned by the state and has fewer abutters who might object to building a transit hub and all the traffic that it would entail.  But almost no passengers want to go there, as it is far from most destinations including the Providence Mall, City Hall, URI, banks, hotels, the Post Office, cafes, the East Side, and more.  About 73% of bus passengers end their trip at KP near all these places.  However, as Senate President Ruggerio noted, Parcel 35 is closer to Crossroads, perhaps suggesting he thinks RIPTA is mainly about the homeless.

Map showing potential location of RIPTA transit hub on Parcel 35, courtesy of WPRI

Parcel 35 is not directly on east-west or north-south routes as KP is currently.  Now, only the infrequent #6 Prairie Avenue bus route goes near that site.  Other routes would have to skip it or take significant detours that would slow trips and increase operating costs. For example, the Downtown Corridor routes and the Route 1 Hope-Eddy are about 7 blocks away, the R line about 3.  North-side buses such as 57 Smith will either skip it if they continue to terminate at KP, or run almost empty from there to Parcel 35 and back.  Those transferring at KP will either have no terminal building for shelter, bathrooms, information, or RIPTA will have to maintain 2 terminal buildings, again adding to operating costs.  It is hard to see how anyone concerned about transit can consider this Parcel 35 location a good idea.

Some groups such as Grow Smart RI have said that no move to any new hub should proceed as long as existing service is threatened by looming deficits, and needed improvements in service as called for in the Transit Master Plan remain unfunded.  It may be a hard sell to convince the public that a costly move to an inferior hub location by an almost broke transit agency makes any sense.

GET INVOLVED: All are invited to this first community meeting  regarding RIPTA’s transit hub,  Monday May 13 at the Amica Mutual Pavilion, aka “Dunk” 4 to 7pm.

For more information: (www.ripta.com/TransitCenter) for the project rationale, RIPTA’s answers to “frequently asked questions” and more.

Barry Schiller is a retired Rhode Island College math professor, and was 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.