NORTH PROVIDENCE — Senate President Dominick Ruggerio caused a stir in transportation circles in February when he called for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s CEO to step down immediately and proposed bringing the agency under the control of the state Department of Transportation.
Nearly two months later, the idea of wholesale change in the state’s transportation system hasn’t gotten very far. RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian is still in his position; the General Assembly hasn’t yet taken up legislation to bring the agency under the DOT; and the governor on Monday was pumping the brakes.
Asked specifically about RIPTA being brought under RIDOT, Governor Dan McKee said Monday at an unrelated event in North Providence: “That’s certainly being considered. But at this point in time, one of the things we are doing is evaluating RIPTA over the next year, and we’ll see what that looks like. I don’t know whether that has any traction at this point in time. If it does, we’ll deal with it if it does.”
Monday was not the first time McKee has addressed questions about the proposal, but he seems to have gone further than he has in the past when he said the idea may not have traction.
RIPTA is a quasi-public agency governed by a board made up of governor-appointed, Senate-confirmed members who can, among other things, pick a CEO. The agency runs transit service in Rhode Island, mostly via fixed-route buses. Avedisian has served since 2018 after wrapping up a tenure as the Republican mayor of Warwick.
The DOT director, on the other hand, is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, serving in the governor’s cabinet at his or her pleasure. The DOT builds and maintains roads and bridges, rail stations, tolls, bike paths, and ferries.
Ruggerio’s statement in mid-February calling for RIPTA to be brought under RIDOT, and for Avedisian to step down, cited recent RIPTA controversies and struggles. That includes a lobbying contract that came under scrutiny, a bus driver shortage, and what Ruggerio considered a lack of planning for fiscal challenges.
Ruggerio also said in February he would introduce legislation that brought RIPTA under the auspices of the state Department of Transportation. Ruggerio never gave a timeframe on it, but it still hasn’t happened. Spokesman Greg Pare said in an email: “The legislation is still being worked on.”
After the Senate held an oversight hearing into RIPTA, some senators, including Ruggerio, introduced legislation to require RIPTA board approval for certain services.
The idea of combining RIPTA and RIDOT has come up in the past, but never made it much past the trial balloon phase.
McKee, echoing previous statements, said Monday that he still maintains confidence in Avedisian’s ability to manage RIPTA’s challenges.
Lately, those challenges include a looming fiscal cliff. RIPTA has gotten scads of federal funding through the COVID-19 pandemic, but that money won’t last forever, and advocates for transit have pressed state leaders for more funding. Transit systems around the nation are staring down this fiscal cliff.
If Ruggerio’s idea to bring RIPTA under RIDOT were to gain traction, those challenges would be Peter Alviti Jr.’s to deal with. And Alviti, the current Department of Transportation director, said Monday that RIDOT could handle taking over RIPTA, pointing to what he considered its successes: the Pawtucket-Central Falls Transit Center and other rail-related projects, starting up a ferry system, and getting funding for DOT projects. He also said that consolidation in government is generally thought of as a good thing.
“We’ve got the bandwidth to do it,” said Alviti.
Alviti also noted it would be up to the governor and General Assembly: “We stand ready to do anything that the governor and the legislature wants us to do.”
The idea of putting RIPTA under the Department Transportation prompted pushback from transit, pedestrian, and bicycle advocates, some of whom tend to view Alviti skeptically.
Alviti said the criticism of him is misplaced, pointing to work in the state’s rail, ferry service, and bike and pedestrian transportation.
“We have a very well proven track record of highly successful projects,” Alviti said.