Taxpayers Subsidize Free URI Parking

The Brown Daytime Shuttle stops to pick up a rider on Thayer Street in Providence. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

The Brown Daytime Shuttle stops to pick up a rider on Thayer Street in Providence. (Kevin Proft/ecoRI News)

Transit incentives offered by local colleges play large part in shaping Providence traffic congestion

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The decisions local colleges and universities make regarding the transportation options they offer their students and employees play a role in increasing or decreasing the city’s traffic and parking congestion.

Incentivizing non-automobile modes of transportation or encouraging people to carpool cuts back on the number of cars entering the city at rush hour and demanding a parking spot. Free and reduced-rate parking, alternatively, does the opposite.

Brown University, for instance, charges students and employees to park cars at campus-operated parking lots. Undergraduates pay $750 per school year for a 24-hour spot, while employees pay $600 per year to park on campus during daytime hours.

Elizabeth Gentry, the university’s associate vice president of business and financial services, said the cost of a Brown parking permit is below market value compared to other parking in Providence. Compared to the cost of parking permits at other area colleges, however, Brown’s rates are on the high end.

In addition to charging for parking, Brown University encourages and facilitates carpooling among commuters, lessening the number of cars driven to campus and reducing the cost of a campus parking space by half or more.

Meanwhile, Brown University ID holders — students and employees — receive free access to Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) buses. RIPTA tracks their rides and bills the university monthly.

To further reduce dependency on cars, Brown offers a private shuttle that services College Hill and the hospitals via downtown and the Jewelry District. The college also partners with Zipcar, and has bicycle racks outside many of its buildings.

“Brown makes every effort to provide a broad range of transportation-related options to our community,” Gentry said. “We trust our community to make good decisions with respect to transportation based on their individual need.

“There are a number of reasons to encourage the community not to bring vehicles to campus, including reduction in the overall carbon footprint, alleviation of congestion in a residential campus, and effective management of available parking.”

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) discourages students from driving to campus by not offering student parking permits. Employees pay for parking permits on a sliding scale based on salary, but even those earning more than $150,000 annually pay only $550 a year for a parking spot — less than the blanket rate charged by Brown University to all of its employees. Lower wage RISD employees pay as little as $200 a year. All parking permit fees are deducted pre-tax.

According to Jaime Marland, RISD’s director of public relations, the fees the college collects from parking permits don’t cover the cost of maintaining the campus’ parking lots.

“RISD takes a loss on its parking lots in order to keep (parking) costs as low as possible for employees,” she said.

While this decision is welcome news to employees who pay for parking permits, it also incentivizes driving more than if employees were charged the full cost of their parking spot.

RISD offers similar RIPTA, private shuttle and carpooling benefits to those offered by Brown University. RISD and Brown’s private shuttles partner to offer service to the other college’s community, increasing the overall size of each school’s network of routes.

“In addition to reducing our employees’ transportation expenses, these offerings can yield environmental benefits such as reduced emissions,” Marland said.

If Brown and RISD are trying to incentivize their students and employees to commute to campus sans-auto, students and employees of the University of Rhode Island’s Feinstein campus in downtown Providence are incentivized to do just the opposite.

Despite recognizing the proximity of the campus to Kennedy Plaza — the state’s main public-transit hub — the URI community is incentivized to drive to campus.

URI students and employees are offered free parking in the Rhode Island Convention Center garage. This benefit is the result of an annually renewed taxpayer-funded agreement between the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner (OPC) — formerly the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education — and the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority (RICCA).

The annual payment from OPC to RICCA is $897,135. The agreement also provides free parking to members of the Community College of Rhode Island, Shepard Building Campus community and OPC staff.

ecoRI News attempted to speak with someone at URI knowledgeable about university parking but was unable to get in touch with a person able to answer our questions.

While URI does offer a shuttle service to its students and employees, it simply moves community members between the parking garage and the campus front door on Washington Street.

“Free and reduced-rate parking by institutions entices people to use a car for daily commuting, contributing to increased congestion and pollution, and reducing the use of and value of our state's mass transit system,” said John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island. “If more people took advantage of RIPTA’s service, it would lead to a more robust system, making it even more valuable to commuters.”

URI employees and students are offered discounted 15-ride and monthly RIPTA bus passes. While their Brown University and RISD counterparts ride free, the URI discount only covers 50 percent of the regular fare. Furthermore, passes can only be bought at the Memorial Student Union on the Kingston campus, leaving many Feinstein campus students unable to take advantage of the savings despite their proximity to Kennedy Plaza.

“The decision to use non-car forms of transportation are influenced by both the carrot and the stick,” Flaherty said. “When both are employed, there is far more incentive for people to use alternatives to the car.”