Rhode Island Works on Plan to Master Public Transit

The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s fleet of buses transports more than 16 million riders annually. (RIPTA)

The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s fleet of buses transports more than 16 million riders annually. (RIPTA)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The mission of Rhode Island’s new transit master plan is both ambitious and bold, but it faces an uphill battle against a car-centered culture protected by 20th-century thinking.

The plan, called TransitForwardRI 2040, is being developed to determine how public transportation can best serve Rhode Island in the future. The plan “will envision how our passenger transportation network should look and operate in the future … how this network should be enhanced and further developed to best meet the travel needs of the state’s residents, workers and visitors.”

It’s being developed using transit data, public input, and stakeholder feedback. Both short-term and long-term projects will be proposed, and potential partnerships, policies, and investments will be identified. It’s a multi-agency effort by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), and the Division of Statewide Planning that is focused on moving people via bus, rail, and ferry.

Those three modes of Rhode Island public transit currently move about 18 million people annually, with the state’s fleet of buses responsible for transporting 16.6 million of those riders.

Despite those impressive numbers, however, less than 3 percent of Rhode Island residents use public transit to commute to work — both Connecticut (nearly 6 percent) and Massachusetts (nearly 10 percent) boast higher percentages.

The goal of the ongoing initiative is to develop Rhode Island’s transit vision for the next 20 years, identify the specific improvements needed to achieve the vision, identify potential funding sources, and recognize governance changes that could help move the vision forward. The plan is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

In May, as part of the transit master plan’s development, the three agencies released a State of the System report. The 108-page document provides a comprehensive overview of all bus, rail, and water transportation services operating in Rhode Island. It looks at factors such as who uses transit, which bus routes have the highest ridership, and where there will be a need for new or expanded services during the next two decades. The report also examines some of the challenges affecting the use of transit, and infrastructure improvements that can made to support public transit.

Currently, transit services in Rhode Island are predominantly oriented toward serving trips to and from Providence via bus. RIPTA’s fixed-route network is mostly designed as a hub-and-spoke system, with service oriented toward its central transit hub at Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence. Of the system’s 53 fixed routes, only 11 don’t travel to downtown Providence.

The report highlighted some areas that need transit improvements:

There are several areas of the state beyond Greater Providence, such as Cranston, Narragansett, Newport, South Kingston, Warwick, Westerly, and Woonsocket, where the density of activity could support additional transit options.

The urban core surrounding Providence could effectively support more frequent bus service, and faster, more frequent rail service to Boston.

Sarah Ingle, RIPTA’s manager of long-range planning, said the initiative is now focusing on 20 strategies to improve transit service. Those strategies include light rail, bus rapid transit, regional rapid bus, fare integration, and better bus stops and facilities. White papers are being written for each strategy and they all are expected to be posted online by the end of the month.

“We’ve looked at the state and said what parts of the state might best be served by what sorts of transit,” the transit planner said. “We want to see what resonates with folks.”

The 20 strategies will be broken down into three scenarios, with different cost versions, which will eventually lead to the recommended master plan.

To help break the strategies into scenarios, additional public meetings will be scheduled for next month. Whatever the final document becomes, adequate funding for both capital projects and ongoing operational costs will be a key part of the initiative. That funding can come from a combination of sources, including federal grants, increased ridership, higher fares, and/or changing the state formula used to fund RIPTA.

The fact public transit and alternative modes of transportation are cheaper, healthier, safer, and greener is largely ignored when Rhode Island decides to reconstruct existing and build new transportation infrastructure. (State of the System)

The fact public transit and alternative modes of transportation are cheaper, healthier, safer, and greener is largely ignored when Rhode Island decides to reconstruct existing and build new transportation infrastructure. (State of the System)

Road not followed
Much of the groundwork for the yearlong master-plan effort was laid during the past decade, with taxpayer-funded reports that have highlighted the importance of reducing vehicle miles traveled as climate-change pressures mount and greenhouse gases accumulate.

These reports promote riding the bus and taking other forms of public transit, bicycling, and walking. They provide a roadmap to transforming Rhode Island’s transportation sector to better deal with 21st-century challenges.

These reports note the dangers of exhaust and particulate matter spewing from tailpipes and diesel smoke stacks. One, from earlier this year, found that Providence neighborhoods close to Interstate 95, and the city’s industrial waterfront, are suffering from unhealthy emissions.

A handful of initiatives and projects during the past several years — i.e., the relaunching of the Providence-to-Newport ferry, a pilot semi-autonomous shuttle service, the addition of electric buses to RIPTA’s fleet, and a new pedestrian bridge over the Providence River — have been launched to help reduce emissions from the transportation sector, which accounts for about 40 percent of Rhode Island’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state, however, needs to take more substantial action if it truly wants to reduce climate emissions from the transportation sector — a move that would benefit the environment, the local economy, and public health. Having emission-reduction goals is nice, but they are meaningless without complementing actions.

For instance, the reconstruction of the 6-10 Connector is a perfect example of Rhode Island’s continued old-school view of transportation infrastructure. The existing system of highways and ramps comprising the interchange was originally built in the 1950s as a bypass around Olneyville. It’s being rebuilt basically in the same manner and will continue to cut Olneyville off from the rest of Providence.

A RIDOT plan released last month would add an additional westbound lane to the Washington Bridge carrying Interstate 195 over the Seeking River. The agency also has plans to add lanes to the Route 95 North Providence viaduct.

Decades of U.S. traffic data, however, show that adding more roadway doesn’t lessen congestion. This fallacy even has a name, induced demand, and it basically says if more highway lanes are built, more drivers will hit the road.

Besides doing little to improve commuting times, the widening of highways essentially expands fossil-fuel infrastructure. In Rhode Island, the idea also ignores the findings of commissioned reports.

The state’s Long Range Transportation Plan says transportation “must equitably benefit all communities, and must be reconciled with quality of life issues as vital as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the preservation of our natural and historic heritage and beauty of the natural and built environments. It cannot exist independently of these concerns.”

The guiding principles of Rhode Island’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) stress the need to provide “convenient transportation services and facilities that offer seamless and efficient connections across different modes for the maximum number of users.”

These principles also note that the state must “recognize, protect and enhance the quality of the state’s environmental resources through well-designed transportation projects and the effective operation of the system.”

Twice in the past six months, however, RIDOT has proposed cutting funding for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. The agency’s latest TIP amendment slashes $37 million from non-vehicle needs. In February, RIDOT proposed redirecting nearly $28 million from alternative transportation projects to pay for street paving and bridge repair work. There was plenty of pushback, and DOT eventually withdrew the proposal.

Rhode Island’s Complete Streets Action Plan proudly notes that as part of a “typical resurfacing project, RIDOT performed a Road Safety Assessment to address safety concerns for students crossing Elmwood Avenue at various points along the corridor.”

When RIDOT repaved Elmwood Avenue four years ago, it chose to include sharrows rather than incorporate separated bike lanes. The agency’s safety work mostly included other roadway spray painting.

The multi-agency transit master plan is working to address transit-related issues in Rhode Island, to reduce climate emissions, increase ridership, and improve services.

The important question will then be: Will this plan receive the necessary support and funding from state and local government required to transform Rhode Island’s transit sector in a manner that addresses 21st-century challenges?