By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Public transit has a big role to play in the future of Rhode Island. An effective and well-utilized mass transit system could make it easier to live and work in Rhode Island, relieve congestion on our highways and thoroughfares, and reduce our carbon emissions.
With these things in mind, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) recently unveiled its five-year strategic plan to the public; the first in RIPTA’s 44-year history. The plan establishes a new vision for RIPTA and sets an action plan over the next five years to bolster the statewide transit network. The plan also recognizes a growing awareness of the economic and environmental benefits that transit brings.
RIPTA’s Mark Therrien and Amy Pettine, assistant general manager and public relations director, respectively, offered a point-by-point explanation of the plan this week.
RIPTA faces many challenges in instituting this plan that, according to Therrien, include increased demand for new modes of transit, such as Flex buses, and short trip taxis and car rentals, like Zipcars, the negative public perception of RIPTA and, of course, the completely backwards funding structure behind the state's public transit system.
RIPTA is funded through a tax on gasoline. When you fill up, you’re paying for the buses. Now, when gasoline prices spike, and communities tend to need more buses on the road, there are fewer people buying gas, and therefore, less money for public transit.
Therrien came to RIPTA in the 1970s when, he said, “It was an organization that was trying to recover from the failed (private business) model, a time when the idea of route planning was a phone call from an elected official telling us to run a bus by some new housing project or senior center.”
Therrien admitted that RIPTA wallowed in this state of visionary oblivion for most of the 1980s, but in the 1990s, tried to repair their image — by repairing the fleet — and attempted to woo the commuter crowd with faster routes, to some success.
With these challenges come opportunities. Newly enabled as Rhode Island’s “mobility manager” agency, RIPTA has a responsibility to serve the needs of the public and public agencies. “It is our role to help with school transportation,” Therrien said. “We don’t have to run everything, but we have to help figure out how things should be run.”
The plan outlines five goals for public transit in Rhode Island:
- Multi-modal and regional transit. There is a renewed interest in reviving light and commuter rail in Rhode Island; RIPTA is developing a statewide rail plan.
- Growing the network. Many smaller communities in Rhode Island are underserved by RIPTA. RIPTA has deployed Flex buses in some outlying communities to combat this problem, but would like to see the program expanded.
- Increase convenience and attractiveness. RIPTA plans on adding rapid buses to some of its more heavily trafficked routes and new downtown hubs to adjust traffic flow through Kennedy Plaza, more park and ride lots, and new bus shelters designed by local artists. Buses on rapid routes will have the same radio transmitters that keep lights green for emergency personnel.
- Supporting livable communities. In RIPTA’s plan, smaller buses and mini-hubs at places such as the Lincoln and Warwick malls could increase local demand, and provide better service to “bedroom” communities. Linking with bike paths is also part of the plan.
- Creating a sustainable economic model. As noted earlier, RIPTA’s funding scheme leaves a lot to be desired.
“Convenience and attractiveness mean a lot to people,” Pettine said. “Our bus stop improvement program is growing and thriving. We’re also trying to be very tech savvy. We’re going to start having access to fares online, up-to-the-minute bus information via GPS, and mobile apps that can tell you where your bus is nearing.”
Pettine also said that, as part of a rebranding initiative, some well-traveled bus routes would be getting names, rather than the number system currently in use.
Many of the proposed improvements have already been funded, and some executed, such as the new fleet of diesel hybrid buses, but many more initiatives need funding. RIPTA is attempting to move quickly on many of them by taking advantage of available federal stimulus money.