Sometimes, it’s a lack of money that can derail a good idea. Other times, it’s a lack of political will — or a lack of support.
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s previous proposal to build a multi-hub system that would spread RIPTA buses throughout downtown Providence (rather than having a central hub like Kennedy Plaza) didn’t garner support from anyone not named Peter Alviti (the DOT director) or Joe Paolino (the former mayor and downtown real estate mogul).
Thankfully, there’s a new concept for public transit in downtown that seems to be quietly gaining momentum, appears to be affordable, and would address many of the existing concerns about Kennedy Plaza, including drug and safety issues.
The best part is that it would benefit the people who are too often ignored when we discuss grandiose ideas for public transportation: those who actually ride the bus.
The idea, which has the enthusiastic support of organizations like The Providence Foundation and Grow Smart Rhode Island, is to build a new indoor transit center across from the Garrahy Judicial Complex on Dorrance Street on land that is currently a surface parking lot owned by the Garabedian family.
Lisa Garabedian Regan, a vice president for Bliss Properties, did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday.
Under a proposal that Governor Dan McKee and his chief of staff Tony Afonso have seen, the new transit center would have indoor passenger waiting areas, a break room for drivers, bathrooms, and a small amount of retail space (think Dunkin’). The second floor would include a parking garage, and the above that would be 49 apartments that would be some combination of affordable, workforce, and market-rate housing.
“This is like the Goldilocks solution,” John Flaherty, Grow Smart’s deputy director, told me on Monday. He said that other ideas for revamping Kennedy Plaza and public transit were either financially unfeasible (like a proposal to build a new bus hub near the train station) or wildly unpopular (the multi-hub plan).
So how much would it cost?
Flaherty and Cliff Wood, executive director of The Providence Foundation, are currently working off a projection of $77 million, which would include using around $30 million in unspent bond money that voters approved specifically for mass transit infrastructure seven (yes, seven) years ago.
That leaves a large financial gap, but Flaherty and Wood believe that some combination of federal and private dollars could easily make the project affordable. Plus, both the state and the city have plenty of American Rescue Plan dollars to spend, and improving transit and building affordable housing certainly should be among the top priorities for our state leaders.
In fact, both McKee and outgoing Mayor Jorge Elorza should be jumping over each other to support the proposal. McKee wants cranes in the sky as he runs for a full term next year, and Elorza could use a legacy project.
“This is a very feasible project, a very needed project,” Wood said. “The Providence Foundation is in full support. We’re very happy to see an opportunity to improve transit and provide much-needed housing, including affordable housing, in the downtown.”
The foundation has also brought on Government Strategies, the lobbying firm run by former Warwick Mayor Joe Walsh, to advocate for the project.
It’s inevitable that there will be some naysayers of the new proposal, and for good reason. In many circles, revamping Kennedy Plaza is simply code for removing poor people from downtown. Unfortunately, that leads some critics to ignore that Kennedy Plaza has also become a public health problem where it’s easier to score fentanyl than a cup of coffee.
This proposal would move most of the buses out of Kennedy Plaza, but it would provide better amenities to riders in a location (near the old I-195 land) that is beaming with potential. And if state leaders and public health advocates can get it right, maybe they’ll be able to provide more support for struggling folks who will almost certainly move from Kennedy Plaza down the street to the new hub.
This is a chance to do something in downtown that makes sense. McKee and Elorza shouldn’t let the opportunity slip away.