PROVIDENCE — RIPTA projects laying off 400 employees, about half the workforce, and drastically cutting service, if the state doesn’t act to address its fiscal challenges.
The projections are contained in an internal presentation shared with members of its board of directors Wednesday after a contentious meeting that laid bare disagreements over the future of the critical but cash-strapped agency.
A 24-page slideshow, obtained via a records request, lays out a challenging road ahead: The COVID-19 pandemic hit the agency’s ridership revenue hard, while also cutting into its revenue from the gas tax as more people stayed home. Nearly $130 million in federal COVID-related relief aid has helped buoy the agency and balance its budget, but that money will run out in the middle of next year. That would leave a projected “fiscal cliff” of about $40 million, the agency projects.
The consequences of not acting to address the fiscal cliff and fully funding RIPTA by the 2025 fiscal year would be severe, RIPTA’s management projected in one slide: Routes 6, 16, 23, 40, 58, 64, 68, and 73 would be eliminated, along with all park-n-ride/Express routes which are QX, 9X, 10X, 12X, 24L, 59X, 61X, 65X, and 95X. Other routes would be reduced in span and frequency: Routes 1, 20, 21, 22, 78, 31, 54, 55, 56, 57, 60, 66, 67, 72 and 92. Also, supplemental Providence school trips, all Sunday and holiday bus service, and summer beach service would be eliminated, along with some paratransit service.
“Major service reductions would diminish passengers’ overall ability to move around the state, leading to further reductions in ridership and additional deficits,” the slide said.
As the internal presentation notes, RIPTA is far from alone in facing major fiscal challenges, with fiscal cliffs looming for transit agencies around the country as they face decreased revenue from riders and increased expenses amid a time of labor shortages and inflation.
The projections were developed by RIPTA management to illustrate those challenges with potential consequences. But those challenges have been visible for some time: In September, CEO Scott Avedisian wrote in a letter to board members accompanying the agency’s fiscal plan, which foreshadowed federal funds running out.
“At that time, a new revenue source will be needed to prevent large reductions to service,” Avedisian wrote.
And like other agencies, RIPTA is facing a driver shortage — it is short 44 drivers, the presentation, dated in late March, says.
That’s happening as RIPTA tries to embark on an ambitious transit master plan that would cost another $260 million annually to implement, and as the agency eyes investments like free fares and electrification. Supporters say fully funding the transit master plan would help the state reach its binding climate goals.
The presentation touts RIPTA’s performance, “despite a chronic lack of funding.” The agency provides more trips, in a larger area, with a more effective cost per trip than do similarly situated transit agencies, the presentation says.
Questions about RIPTA’s finances were front and center at a board meeting Wednesday.
So were the divisions about what to do about it. Though board members said they agreed that RIPTA needed more funding, they haven’t yet been able to agree on how to ask for it. It was one of the points of contention at a long and, according to longtime observers, unusually contentious RIPTA board meeting.
The board has been considering a nonbinding resolution asking the governor and the leaders of the General Assembly to “give all due consideration to fully funding” RIPTA, but multiple members said Wednesday they thought the resolution needed more details. The resolution left blank the amount that it would need to be funded for certain initiatives.
Peter Alviti, the director of the Department of Transportation who also sits on RIPTA’s board, compared the draft resolution — the second attempt at crafting one — to “Jell-O.”
“This is just an agreement to agree in the future on something that’s not defined, which never gets any money anyway,” Alviti said at one point.
The resolution ended up getting tabled, although board members tried to underscore that it wasn’t a sign of a lack of support for RIPTA — they’re just trying to work out the best way to ask.
On multiple occasions Wednesday, Alviti seemed to implicitly or explicitly raise questions about RIPTA’s direction, including when he drew out criticism of management from the president of the union for drivers. Fellow board member Patrick Crowley, the secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, has also been critical lately of the agency’s administration, including a recent dispute over a lobbying contract; Crowley worked on the second draft of the funding resolution after raising concerns about the tone of the first one.
Alviti and Crowley were joined Wednesday by board member James Leach in voting against the ultimately successful re-election of Normand Benoit as chair; Benoit has said he favors renewing Avedisian’s contract, which is up in June.
Benoit said in an interview that the differences in opinion in how to approach the funding resolution were a sign of a healthy debate.
“Would I like everyone in the world to agree with me?” Benoit said in an interview. “But it doesn’t matter. I just hope we go forward in a positive manner and have open discussions.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said in February that Avedisian should resign and RIPTA should be brought under RIDOT.
In an interview earlier this week, Alviti said RIDOT could handle RIPTA, and cited RIDOT’s success in starting ferry service and improving rail, although he said it would ultimately be a decision of the governor and General Assembly. He declined to comment on Avedisian’s leadership in that interview.
It’s still unclear how much momentum the idea of wholesale change at RIPTA has gained. Governor Dan McKee raised that same question earlier in the week. But some transit advocates — who have tended to support Avedisian and view Alviti more skeptically — worry that the criticism they saw Wednesday had other motivations. John Flaherty, deputy director of the organization Grow Smart Rhode Island, said he hoped it was not a “smokescreen” for major changes to RIPTA’s structure or leadership.
“It seemed to me that based on the line of questioning, that Peter Alviti and Patrick Crowley seemed to have an agenda that wasn’t necessarily focused on improving public transit,” Flaherty said.
In an email Thursday, Crowley responded: “On the contrary, I’ve been laser focused on public transportation. One of the first items of the Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition, which I helped found, was to advocate for free and expanded RIPTA service. This agency is too important to our Act on Climate goals to just keep doing business as usual.”
And in an interview Wednesday, Crowley said there was a philosophical difference on the board about its role and how proactive it should be.
“The board’s lack of proactive action over the years has led to this fiscal cliff that we’re facing,” Crowley said. “And I think if we’re going to turn the agency’s finances around, the board needs to be the ones that set the policy for the agency, not the other way around.”
Avedisian said in an emailed statement: “The resolution to fully fund RIPTA and the Transit Master Plan reflects months of tireless efforts not only from my dedicated staff, but with input from Board members as well. As discussed during (Wednesday’s) meeting, we will continue to refine our strategy based on their feedback. I look forward to continuing to work alongside the dedicated RIPTA team to build and deliver a world-class, modern transit system for Rhode Islanders.”