PROVIDENCE — Senate President Dominick Ruggerio on Wednesday officially released his proposal to put the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority under the state Department of Transportation, following through on an idea he’d originally floated in February to dramatically transform bus ridership in the state.
Meanwhile, in semi-related news, a RIPTA governing board committee earlier in the day voted unanimously to recommend extending the contract of the authority’s current CEO for one year, while developing a job review process that will help determine whether he should continue to lead the agency longer-term. That one-year extension would be up for a full vote later this month.
The two developments in quick succession could help shape the direction of Rhode Island’s transit agency for years and even decades to come.
Ruggerio’s broader bill to all but do away with RIPTA as a stand-alone entity would have to pass not just the Senate but the House, and be signed by the governor. So far, those other power centers have been relatively tight-lipped on an idea that, until Wednesday, was only theoretical. But Ruggerio, a Democrat representing parts of Providence and North Providence, says it’s time to put RIPTA under the structure of RIDOT, which is more fully integrated into state government.
“Quality transit is vital to our economic goals and quality of life in Rhode Island,” Ruggerio said in a written statement. “We need a visionary transit department led by professionals who are accountable to the public. The director of RIDOT answers directly to the Governor, and serves with advice and consent of the Senate. There is no good reason that a service as vital as transit should be handled by a quasi-public instead of a transparent, accountable state agency.”
Ruggerio said he’d formally introduce the bill Thursday.
Under the proposal, RIPTA as an authority would continue to exist, but with its powers, property, and liabilities transferred to the Department of Transportation. RIDOT’s leader would be called the “executive director” rather than just director, under this unified department. Union workers would technically remain employees of the transit agency and wouldn’t become state employees; non-union workers would become state employees for the purposes of things like wages and salaries, but would remain in the transit authority pension plan. The move would take effect July 1, 2023, if passed.
The RIPTA-RIDOT proposal — which is embedded in full below — is sure to stoke discussion and likely opposition among transit advocates in the state. Some view RIDOT’s current director, Peter Alviti, with suspicion. When the idea was first floated, it generated pushback from some riders of RIPTA’s buses.
Alviti himself said in an interview with the Boston Globe a few weeks ago that the decision on whether to give his department control of RIPTA would be up to the legislature and governor. But, he said, RIDOT had the bandwidth to do it. He said his department has experience in such things as creating a ferry service and improving rail service in the state. Alviti, who also sits on RIPTA’s board, said criticism of him is misplaced.
Under current law, RIPTA’s CEO is hired by RIPTA’s board members. Those members are in turn appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. Scott Avedisian, the current CEO, has been under pressure of late, with the head of the union for bus drivers questioning the direction of the agency, and Ruggerio himself calling on Avedisian to resign.
Ruggerio cited issues like a bus driver shortage and fiscal challenges.
RIPTA faces a fiscal cliff in the middle of next year, when federal aid that rained down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic runs out. The gap could reach $40 million a year, and mean drastic service reductions if it goes unaddressed, according to RIPTA.
Avedisian’s contract runs through the end of this month, but on Wednesday, RIPTA’s executive compensation committee recommended his contract be extended for a year, with a raise commensurate with one that the bus drivers’ union got, according to RIPTA board chair Normand Benoit. In the meantime, RIPTA would develop a formalized job performance review process, Benoit said.
The vote on the one-year extension would go to the full RIPTA board later this month. The one-year contract would be shorter than Avedisian’s previous contracts, but it would ease the short-term questions about the future of RIPTA’s leadership. It would also give RIPTA a chance to use a soon-to-be developed review process in making its decision.
Benoit, who’s been supportive of Avedisian, said he’s happy with the outcome.
“I think it’s something that makes sense,” Benoit said.
Patrick Crowley, a RIPTA board member and the secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said in an interview after the meeting that he considers the one-year period to be a sort of probationary period. Union workers already go through extensive job evaluations, even though there’s currently no mechanism to subject the head of an agency like RIPTA to do so, Crowley said.
“If things improve, especially relations with the bus drivers’ union, if things improve with customer service, and we deal with the fiscal cliff, then he’ll get my support to continue,” Crowley said. “If those things don’t improve, he won’t have my support to have his contract renewed at the end of the year.”
Crowley has been critical of RIPTA’s management of late.
Avedisian said in a statement that he appreciated the recommendation that his contract be extended for a year, and looked forward to discussion of it at the full Board of Directors meeting.
“I also look forward to the opportunity to continue to work with the Committee, as well as our Board of Directors, and thank them for their hard work and diligence on behalf of the Authority and the people we serve,” Avedisian said. “Together with our union leadership, executive management and Board, we will continue to deliver a safe, effective world class transit system for the people of Rhode Island. Together our contributions will help create a lasting impact and a bright future for the agency and our state.”
For his part, Ruggerio said in a statement about the committee’s recommendation: “While I believe the time is now for new direction at RIPTA, I am pleased to hear that the board is working towards implementing a formal review and evaluation process of the CEO’s performance.”
Besides the RIPTA legislation, the Senate leadership on Wednesday announced three other transportation-related bills that would soon be introduced.
One, by state Senator Robert Britto, “is aimed at better aligning projects so that roadways aren’t dug up multiple times,” the Senate said. Another, from state Senator Samuel D. Zurier, would build on a proposal from Governor Dan McKee to create a state matching fund for paving projects. The last, from state Senator Frank Lombardo, would require new and expanded parking lots to have a certain number of electric vehicle charging stations.
This story has been updated with a comment from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.