In 2014, 60 percent of Rhode Island voters approved a $35 million bond to invest in mass transit hub infrastructure, which was really a fancy way of saying the state was going to create a better public busing system that might not be so reliant on Kennedy Plaza in the heart of downtown Providence.
Nearly seven years later, not much has changed. The money is still there, unspent, because while everyone agrees that public transportation in the city needs improvement, no one can agree on how to make it happen.
Changing the system is an ambitious goal in a state that has never quite embraced public transit the way that others with larger cities have. There’s a plan to create multi-hub system that would include bus stops near the train station and the Jewelry District. It’s not final, though.
Supporters say the plan would give more people more of a reason to take the bus. Critics say it would make things harder for people who actually use the bus now, including those who rely on it to get to work.
The Department of Transportation is calling for another round of public listening sessions.
In the meantime, $35 million in funding is just sitting there. And everyone involved is frustrated.
“We basically still have your grandmother’s bus system,” said the Department of Transportation’s director, Peter Alviti. “The kinds of changes that we’re looking to make will allow us to grow into a system that’s used by more people because they’ll want to, not because they’re forced to.”
The bus system is a lifeline for many residents who don’t have access to a car and need affordable transportation to get to work. I spent two years taking the No. 27 bus from Manton Avenue and transferring to the No. 99 bus in Kennedy Plaza to get to my bartending job on North Main Street. I didn’t love riding the bus, but it kept me employed. And plenty of people rely on it for that reason.
For those who can afford other means of transportation, Kennedy Plaza is a place they’d rather avoid. Think “Hamsterdam,” in “The Wire” — easy access to drugs, and people who deserve mental health support and counseling biding their time or drowning their sorrows. That makes it an unattractive place for families and can scare away businesses from relocating downtown.
But a multi-hub system doesn’t solve that problem, it just potentially spreads it across the city. It may please a few business owners — like former mayor and real estate developer Joe Paolino — but having three hubs within Providence isn’t going to help commuters coming in from, say, Warwick.
There are several ideas out there that are better than this one.
A proposal from another downtown developer, Buff Chace, suggests creating a new transit center farther down Dorrance Street, near the Garrahy Courthouse. That would allow the city to develop Kennedy Plaza into a more pedestrian-friendly park.
Marsella Development wanted an underground transportation center near the train station, which would have been the best way to connect travelers to and from Boston to the bus lines. Another creative plan would have built an underground bus tunnel in Kennedy Plaza, allowing the city to connect the plaza with Burnside Park above ground.
Now the clock is ticking. There’s some concern that if the remaining money from the $35 million bond isn’t borrowed soon — there’s still more than $33 million left — it will expire. Securing the money shouldn’t be a problem, but the ability to finalize a plan that works for everyone is still in question.
“It’s not fully baked yet,” Alviti said.
Truer words have never been spoken.