Providence Foundation Shares Its Thoughts on RIDOT’s Kennedy Plaza Proposal

Editor’s note: The following is the unedited Oct. 8 letter The Providence Foundation board of director chairman, Russell C. Carey, and the organization’s executive director, Clifford J. Wood, sent to Peter Alviti, director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), regarding the agency’s multi-hub bus system proposal that would reconfigure Kennedy Plaza.

Dear Director Alviti,

Thank you for the time you, RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian, representatives of Governor Raimondo and Mayor Elorza, and your colleagues took last month to present the State’s Providence Multi-Hub Bus System proposal to The Providence Foundation Board of Directors and Board of Trustees.

The Providence Foundation has a decades-long history of advocating for and leading collaborative investments in downtown Providence, and as an organization we are committed to working with you and all engaged stakeholders to identify the best solutions for the City, the State, and the community at large.

The Foundation played a key leadership role in successfully persuading the citizens of Rhode Island to overwhelmingly support the $35 million Mass Transit Hub Infrastructure Bond in 2014, and ensuring that those funds are well-spent towards the bond measure’s stated goals of improved access to multiple intermodal sites, key transportation, healthcare, and other locations is of utmost importance to our members. In addition to the priority we attach to modern, effective and efficient public transit, the Foundation has long advocated for and contributed to ensuring our capital city’s vital public spaces are vibrant, accessible, well-maintained, safe and secure for all Rhode Islanders to use and enjoy. Outstanding public transit and public space are equally essential components of economic development and job-creation, and the city and state we collectively envision depend on both.

With those overarching goals in mind, The Providence Foundation Board of Directors deliberated extensively on the multi-hub bus system as proposed by RIDOT. In unanimously endorsing the position on that proposal which is articulated in this letter, the Directors were guided by the principles that any planned use of the bond funds must:

1) Improve our public transit.

2) Improve our public spaces.

3) Be cost effective.

4) Identify and include ongoing, budgeted support for public safety, maintenance and appropriate public programming.

In filtering the proposed sub-hubs through these principles we suggest the following:

In Greater Kennedy Plaza:

We have concerns over building a new “west passage” through what is now Biltmore Park related to loss of the public space and exacerbation of already significant peak hour traffic congestion at Emmett Square, resulting in a dangerous, heavily travelled five-way intersection. It is our view that this is not a viable location for the proposed siting of four bus berths.

We recommend abandoning the proposed underpass on Washington Street based on concerns over its expense, difficulty to maintain, and the challenges it would likely pose to pedestrians if, as we expect, berms are required to accommodate bus and vehicular traffic underneath. As an alternative we encourage exploring a solution of aesthetically pleasing hardscape to slow traffic along Washington Street, creating a sense of shared space, and visually connecting through design Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park. This would allow for a flexible space regularly accessible to traffic while providing opportunities to connect the spaces by closing Washington Street to vehicles on weekends and for special events.

We recognize and support the proposed reduction of bus berths and bus routes within and through Kennedy Plaza. As ardent supporters of the Downtown Transit Connector (DTC), we believe that Washington Street is the best route for the DTC through downtown Providence but we do not support the siting of bus stops and berths within Kennedy Plaza, Burnside or Biltmore Parks. Given the relatively small amount of open space in the center of the capital city we believe the four bus berths proposed for Kennedy Plaza should be sited nearby along the DTC route but at the boundaries of the public space. The great public spaces in our country — such as the Boston Public Garden, New York’s Bryant Park, and Detroit’s Campus Martius — generally do not have bus stops in their interior, and neither should Kennedy Plaza if we wish to meet our collective vision of a grand and vibrant public commons. We recognize that siting bus stops in a manner that balances public space, pedestrian and vehicular safety, and efficient public transit is a challenging undertaking. Consistent with our ongoing support for modern public transit, we are eager to engage with RIDOT and RIPTA to identify strategic locations along the DTC route and the periphery of our precious public space where berths can be located in a manner that addresses our collective objectives of enhanced public transit and improved public space.

By avoiding the costs of the underpass and the west passage, funds from the public bond can be better spent on essential public transit upgrades in and around Greater Kennedy Plaza, as well as the necessary investments in the proposed sub-hubs near the Garrahy Courthouse and at the transit-enhanced Providence Station, allowing for the amenities, security and maintenance required for meeting RIPTA’s goal of making public transit a preferred mode of transportation.

At Providence Station:

We believe that given the limited amount of space and already high counts of traffic on the city side of Providence Station, siting the proposed six berths (four passenger and two layover) on that side would be dangerous for cars and pedestrians, as well as require dismantling the recent major renovations on the site. Our view is that the bus routes and stops should be organized on the State House side of Providence Station, and that Exchange Street should be extended along the west side of the Station to Gaspee Street to make this possible. The intermodal connectivity between trains and buses was a central rationale for the public supporting the $35 million transit bond initiative in 2014, and it is critically important that this part of the project be done well. Our proposed approach would provide access to improved facilities for transit riders, allow for appropriate security and maintenance, and enhance convenience for those traveling to and from Providence along the Northeast transit corridor.

Near the Garrahy Courthouse:

The State’s proposal envisions a significant amount of bus and passenger traffic being relocated from Kennedy Plaza to the Jewelry District, in the area around the Garrahy Courthouse. There are many positive aspects to this proposal, including reducing the necessity of RIPTA passenger transfers and bringing riders closer to their ultimate destinations. We are concerned, however, about the ability of RIPTA, the State and the City to meet the transit, maintenance and security needs of the users and neighbors of the proposed hub in this location and strongly encourage active discussion with neighbors and stakeholders, including Johnson & Wales University, to ensure that the plan to do so is thoughtful, viable and adequately resourced. Simply relocating the security challenges in Kennedy Plaza to the Garrahy Courthouse without a plan to address those challenges is not wise, in our view. As with Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station, the Foundation is eager and willing to be an active participant in exploring alternatives and strategies that would meet transit, maintenance and security needs while keeping the project moving forward and building good relationships with the neighbors of the proposed Garrahy Station.

Safety, Security and Public Space Programming:

Finally, and perhaps most critically, we recommend that any plans for any and all of the sub-hubs — Kennedy Plaza, Providence Station and Garrahy Station — include explicit, dedicated budgetary and other necessary support for ongoing security, maintenance, and in some cases, programming. There are no design solutions that can supplant the need for diligent and consistent stewardship of these public assets.

With decades of public transit advocacy, having led the 2014 transit bond initiative, adopted the public space work of the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy, and founding the Downtown Improvement District, we see our organization as a significant stakeholder in this process. We stand ready to work with you and your RIDOT and RIPTA colleagues to identify and implement a plan that will improve our public transit, improve our public spaces, be cost effective, and ensure ongoing, budgeted support for public safety, maintenance and appropriate public programming. Doing so together will no doubt enhance the quality of life of our citizens and substantially improve the economic competitiveness of Providence and Rhode Island for generations to come.