Public Transit Needs to Reclaim R.I.’s Roadways

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The problem with the state’s transportation system came in the form of a chuckle and a shake of the head.

That was the response a man behind the glass at the Kennedy Plaza bus terminal gave when asked if the station had any train schedules. Providence Station is a fairly easy walk away but unknowing bus riders would have no idea that station is served by Amtrak and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

A hub of public transportation in a metropolitan downtown makes no effort to connect their passengers with another important form of public transportation, even though its official name, Kennedy Plaza Intermodal Transportation Center, would suggest otherwise. There isn’t a single a sign that points commuters to Providence Station or even a mention that it exists.

However, the man behind the glass can sell commuters lottery tickets.

No train schedules at the bus station and few bus schedules at the train station may seem trivial, but to Barry Schiller it’s the first sign that commuters are second-class citizens in this nation’s car-centric society.

The longtime transit advocate, who has served on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) board of directors and is currently on the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee, noted one of the reasons there is an ongoing debate about reorganizing Kennedy Plaza, which is nestled in the city’s financial district, as an example of how bus passengers sometimes are viewed in this auto culture.

“Some businesses in the area don’t like to have their clients dropped off near Kennedy Plaza because it’s ‘embarrassing,’” said Schiller, who has sat in on many Kennedy Plaza reorganization discussions and heard the stigma often attached to those who take public transportation.

The North Providence resident and frequent bus rider, though, does agree with those who believe Kennedy Plaza was poorly designed and in need of correction.

“There are few or no shelters and the island is narrow,” Schiller said. “There’s no pedestrian signs, and there are more lanes for cars than for buses.”

In fact, Schiller believes the somewhat-recent buildup of Providence came at the expense of pedestrians and public transit. He pointed out the rounded corner of curbs at many pedestrian-heavy  intersections, which allow cars to make right turns faster but do little for public safety.

“We made it fast as possible for cars to get through the city but we gave no thought about pedestrians,” he said as he recently walked from Kennedy Plaza toward Providence Place Mall. “The city was designed in a very auto-centric manner.”

Providence is hardly alone.

This nation’s public transportation system was hijacked in the 1920s by General Motors’ Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who, with the help of Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum and others, created National City Lines Inc. to buy up and dismantle streetcar systems throughout the United States and replace them with GM buses.

Between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines bought out more than 100 electric streetcar systems in 45 cities, including the United Electrical Railways Co. in Providence. Once purchased, electric trolley service was immediately discontinued, tracks quickly ripped up and wires taken down.

When Sloan launched the campaign that destroyed the country’s popular rail-based public transit systems, which were ever-present in and around bustling urban areas, only one in 10 Americans owned cars and most people traveled by trolley and streetcar.

Once the automobile and petroleum industries succeeded in decimating the nation’s mass transit system, the creation of the federal highway system soon followed. Taxpayer-subsidized road building, driving incentives and subsidies for the automobile industry ushered in the dominance of the car as America’s preferred mode of transportation.

Now, some eight decades later, transportation is responsible for more than two-thirds of the nation’s oil consumption and nearly a third of its carbon dioxide emissions. Life in the fast lane has taken its toll on the environment and the local economy, but it’s not too late to shift gears, according to those working to improve and expand Rhode Island’s transportation options.

“Our economy is seriously hemorrhaging because of our dependence on cars and foreign oil,” said Chris Wilhite, former director of the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club. “It used to be that your car was the best seat in the house, but times have changed. I don’t enjoy sitting in traffic, I don’t love the pollution it causes, I don’t like the fact that the fuel we use is the focal point of wars and I don’t like the tax dollars we lose every year because of our dependence on cars.”

Wilhite said the Rhode Island economy annually loses between $500 million and $1.5 billion because there “isn’t a drop of oil or natural gas in the state.”

The local chapter of the Sierra Club and other Ocean State organizations, such as the Conservation Law Foundation, Grow Smart Rhode Island and Clean Water Action, belong to the Coalition for Transportation Choices, which is a partnership among private sector, advocacy and community agencies focused on enhancing transit in Rhode Island.

Since 2002, about 10 studies have been conducted concerning Rhode Island transportation issues, including the recently released Providence Metropolitan Transit Enhancement Study.

To make Rhode Island more energy independent and reduce pollution, Wilhite said “we need to go back to trolleys and streetcars.”

To do that, he said, “we have to build demand.”

During the past five years, public transit ridership in Rhode Island has increased at a rate of roughly 10 percent annually, according to a recent Sierra Club report. But the state’s current funding scheme for public transportation is designed to fail, the report stated.

“RIPTA has done a good job maintaining its buses and system,” Wilhite said, “but it’s not properly funded. And the way the system is set up, the less people drive, the less money there is for public transportation.”

In Rhode Island, about 9 cents per gallon of gas sold goes to RIPTA, even when the price of gas increases and ridership swells.

This financial formula barely allows RIPTA to cover the maintenance of its fleet, never mind generate enough money for it to expand its coverage area or even allow it to better market itself, Schiller said.

In fact, several independent audits have all concluded that RIPTA is a well-managed but underfunded agency.

Instead of relying on a funding stream that is linked to fuel consumption rather than price, state government needs to create a financing mechanism for public transportation that is sustainable and designed to grow with demand, according to the Sierra Club report.

Increased public transportation would reduce the state’s dependence on oil, would play an essential role in helping promote economic growth, would provide access to jobs and create vibrant urban centers, according to Wilhite.

“We need to expand and boost our current passenger service to what it once was. Providence was originally designed to connect neighborhoods with job centers. The city used to be covered in streetcars,” Wilhite said. “We need rapid transit that gets people across metro areas and into other metro areas. Cities and towns need to have zoning that encourages traditional neighborhood designs and the use of public transportation.”

Rhode Island is the second-most densely populated state, so even a modest expansion of RIPTA services promises increased ridership, Wilhite said. “These streets were built for public transit not automobiles,” he said from just inside a coffee shop on Westminster Street in Providence. “That is why our streets are all clogged up.”

Trains, streetcars and trolleys would help improve public health. A high amount of climate-change pollution comes from privately driven motor vehicles. Passenger cars, light trucks and sport-utility vehicles contribute about17 percent of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the American Public Transportation Association. In New England, their contribution rises to 40 percent.

In fact, leaving the car at home just two days a week would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of 1,600 pounds per year, according to the American Public Health Association.

Public transportation also would help lessen congestion. Since traffic always expands to meet capacity, there will never be enough roadway to solve the country’s traffic problems.

Rhode Island has learned that the hard way. Not long ago the state was forced to drop its traditional license plate numbering system of two letters followed by three digits to one of six digits because of a growing fleet of vehicles. Concerns also have been expressed that Route 95 and many Providence streets are at or over their capacity to handle traffic.

By getting people out of cars, public health is improved,  global warming reduced, air quality enhanced and open space protected, according to the Coalition for Transportation Choices.

Last year, transit ridership nationwide rose 4 percent, and overall,  Americans took nearly 11 billion trips via public transportation, saving more than 4 billion gallons of gas. But even with that increased ridership, the United States still spent about $700 billion on oil, of which nearly $400 billion was spent on petroleum from other countries.

“It’s time we build public demand for more public transportation and change the way we do things,” Wilhite said. “Let’s invest all that gasoline money we send out of state on energy projects like local wind that will benefit Rhode Island and not Houston, Detroit or Saudi Arabia.”