Providence’s Proposed Downtown Transit Connector Needs to be Rerouted

By JAMES CELENZA

The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and the city of Providence are proposing to develop a transit corridor connecting the Providence Amtrak/MBTA station and the hospital district with high-frequency bus service using $17 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, with matching local funds.

The corridor, called the Downtown Transit Connector (DTC), would run along Eddy Street, Dorrance Street, Kennedy Plaza and Exchange Street to Rhode Island Hospital and the train station.

Stops along the corridor would be designed with a “unique” identity and would include shelters, real-time information bus arrival signage, bike-share stations and other passenger amenities.

Part of the federal grant funding would be used by RIPTA to buy vehicles to operate the service, and part would be directed toward altering the streetscapes, in accordance with a “complete-streets approach.”

Construction is expected to begin in 2018 and be completed in early 2019. Higher levels of RIPTA service could begin even before construction is complete.

Most transit advocates support the general approach inasmuch as it directs substantial funding for public transit. Contrast this with the decision by Citizens Bank to locate a huge corporate “campus” west of I-295 in the woods, with no public transit; or Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island’s move from an urban core to a suburban mall, again with no public transit access. Both are indications of a willful blindness to the social costs of climate change by adding to the overall greenhouse-gas emission profile of our state.

One concern is that once this proposed service is established it may go underutilized, and, thus, has led many to question the utility of supporting imaginative transit proposals — as we have seen with the rail expansion to T.F. Green Airport and Wickford junction, where ridership is low.

There are a few key proposals we think should guide the development of the DTC. One is to establish a free loop on the planned corridor. Denver and Hartford instituted a free bus shuttle connecting their train stations, also on the periphery, to key central locations. A free shuttle would help strengthen the value of our Northeast Corridor location and commuter rail access to Providence, especially as Amtrak and MBTA riders will see a free loop to many cultural and entertainment venues in Providence.

This brings up a problem with the routes as currently proposed. Having the DTC run down Dorrance and Eddy seems misguided. The loop should be altered to better serve the Empire Street district, where many of Providence’s key cultural and entertainment establishments are located, such as Trinity Rep, the Providence Public Library and AS220.

Clearly, more MBTA and Amtrak passengers would also ride the bus loop if it directly served the Dunk and the Convention Center on Exchange Street.

Meanwhile, at Fountain and Exchange a new hotel is in the works, GE is moving into the Providence Journal Building and there is a new Roger Williams University campus on Empire Street.

It would make more sense to loop down Empire Street, than cut down Weybossett past PPAC and then reconnect to Dorrance by the Johnson & Whales University library.

James Celenza is the executive director of the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.