Rapid Transit May Be Here Shortly

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The city recently added itself to the ever-growing list of American cities that are exploring multimodal transit programs, including a downtown rapid light rail/bus system to revitalize business districts, improve air quality and traffic conditions in the city and reduce fossil-fuel dependency.

Today, Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) board members presented the findings of the Providence Core Connector feasibility study to the Capital Center Design Review Committee. The report was compiled using case studies from several mid-sized U.S. cities — from Albany, N.Y., to Seattle, Wash. — that all use different rapid transit technologies.

The study has identified three possible routes from College Hill to Rhode Island Hospital, all of which represent a 12-15 minute end-to-end transit time. In addition to a possible downtown trolley system, which would eliminate the need for many buses at the current Kennedy Plaza station, the expanded service would include new name-based routes — rather than the number system that RIPTA currently uses — transportation hubs outside of the high-traffic downtown area, green light extension controllers for new rapid bus routes that would run between Cranston and Providence and Providence and Pawtucket as well as more than 40 new park-and-ride lots statewide.

In the past, projects like these have been plagued by high capital investment costs, but the Obama administration has made a glut of funds available to states and municipalities for public transit investments. In order to take advantage of these time-sensitive opportunities, RIPTA officials have adopted an aggressive approach to the study, siting and implementation of the program.

The plan consists of five individual points:

  • Selecting a route for the project. RIPTA has identified three possible routes, from College Hill, through the Jewelry District to Rhode Island Hospital. Estimated completion: January 2011.
  • Choosing between current buses, modified/extended buses, or a light rail system. Estimated completion: spring 2011.
  • Developing a financial plan, including capital and operational investments. Also slated for spring 2011.
  • Adopting the locally preferred alternatives the previous three points. Estimated completion: summer 2011.
  • Communicating with the community and state agencies involved in the project, DEM and DOT in particular. The next public forum on the matter will be held Dec. 9 at the Providence Central Library from 5-7 p.m.

Cities across the country are realizing the tremendous impact of light rail systems on economic development and reductions in traffic and carbon emissions. The light rail system in downtown Portland, Ore., has resulted in almost $3.5 billion in economic development, and the city has expanded its free light rail route twice from 2.4 miles to four miles.

While presenting the initial findings of the study, RIPTA Assistant General Manager Mark Therrien called the light rail concept, which would take about five years to implement from construction to operation, “an investment in economic development and the sustainability of our state.” He estimated the cost of the most expensive system at less than $100 million, but added, “The initial investment could vary greatly, depending on which vehicle technology is chosen.”

Funding for the project would likely come from federal stimulus funds, bond issues and possible investments from Providence colleges and universities, which, as is in the case of Brown University, run their own shuttle buses that could be eliminated due to route redundancies created by the new system.