Metro

Ballot question aims to raise public transit funds

Question 6 advocates argue R.I. must issue bonds for infrastructure improvements

By
Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2014

On Nov. 4, Rhode Island voters will decide on a ballot measure that would authorize the state government to issue $35 million in bonds to improve public transportation infrastructure across the state, with some of the potential funds going to transit renovations near the Amtrak station in downtown Providence. 

Advocates emphasize the importance of building new transportation hubs, while opponents of the measure argue that the state’s financial situation does not allow room for more debt.

The measure would address congestion at Kennedy Plaza and the lack of synchronization between the rail service and the bus service, said Scott Wolf, executive director of Grow Smart Rhode Island. “We are clearly seeing more people turning to public transit as a viable transportation form,” Wolf said. Without a good connection for transfers from commuter rail to the bus service, commuters are forced to “improvise,” which presents a hassle for commuters and paints Providence as a less attractive area for “young talent,” he added.

Sixty-five organizations, including the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority Riders Alliance, Grow Smart Rhode Island and the auto service organization AAA, have banded together to form the Pro-Transit Hub Coalition with the goal of  raising awareness of the bond measure’s benefits, multiple sources said. The fact that the measure has generated  a “diverse type of support and breadth of support” shows how popular the measure is, said Dan Baudouin, executive director of the Providence Foundation, which advocates for downtown development projects in the city.

The group “Yes on 6” has also used various forms of media and advertisements, including billboards, stickers, bus placards and radio announcements to generate support for the measure, Wolf and Baudouin said.

Advocates of the ballot measure said they hope that approval of the measure will prompt the federal government and private investors to invest more heavily in the state’s public transportation infrastructure. “We want our governmental leaders to see this not only as an important cause, but as a popular cause,” Wolf said. “It is intended to leverage federal dollars and private dollars because the total cost of the transit hub is likely to be significantly more than $35 million.”

The high price tag for such a mass transit hub has spurred some opposition to question 6. “We don’t think of mass transit as a cure-all,” said Mike Stenhouse, chief executive officer for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a conservative think tank.

“We shouldn’t be piling on more debt at this time in our economy. It would be like a family that is in bankruptcy adding more to its credit card debt.”

If mass transit is a high priority, the state should add the costs to the general budget and cut spending elsewhere instead of issuing bonds, Stenhouse said.

But advocates of the measure are hoping for a comfortable margin in the election next week. A poll in August showed that approximately two-thirds of voters were receptive to passing the measure, including people who don’t take public transit themselves, Baudouin said.

Even if the measure doesn’t pass, “the need will still be there,” Baudouin said. “These are the kinds of investments the state needs to make.”