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Free RIPTA no match for parking crunch

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A greater number of Brown students, faculty and staff are using Rhode Island Public Transit Authority services since the statewide program UPass allowed them to do so for free starting in September 2007.

But despite increased bus ridership, the University continues to face a parking crunch, said Elizabeth Gentry, assistant vice president for Financial and Administrative Services.

From last September to December, a monthly average of 3,560 riders swiped their Brown IDs for an average of 28,630 RIPTA rides – nearly a 23 percent increase in both categories over the same period in 2007, Gentry said, adding that about 2,700 of the riders were students.

Many students use RIPTA to commute to work and volunteer programs and to make shopping trips downtown or to East Side Market .

Anna Ninan ’09, who has taken RIPTA with various volunteer groups, is leading a start-up group this year that sends mentors to several local high schools by bus. Prior to the free service, she said, the Swearer Center for Public Service would distribute trolley tickets to volunteer groups, “but there was a shortage so I always ended up paying out of pocket.”

Staff and faculty mainly use RIPTA for daily commuting purposes, Gentry said, noting that a parking shortage on campus is a big incentive for employees to take public transit.

Though Gentry said she didn’t know the number of community members parking on the streets, she pointed to the increase in Brown ridership of RIPTA as a sign that fewer people are bringing cars to work.

In a staff survey on RIPTA use conducted last year by the Staff Advisory Committee, about 13 percent of respondents with parking spaces said they had given them up “to use RIPTA exclusively.” The committee also noted that free RIPTA service is not extended to visiting scholars, but wondered whether it should be.

Gentry said she hopes increased RIPTA ridership will help solve the parking shortage. But those who continue to drive to work cite convenience as the main factor for not switching to the free service.

Claudette Santos, a supervisor for facilities management who works in Keeney Quadrangle, said she brings her car to work. Because the area around Keeney only has three-hour parking, she has to move her car every day at 11:30 a.m. Instead of spending 15 minutes searching for a new spot, she said she usually swaps places with a colleague.

Even so, she has received quite a few parking tickets. “I’ve been to the court so many times,” Santos said. “I’ve been booted many times.”

Santos said “we all bring our cars like idiots” because it is convenient, adding that the infrequency of many buses makes RIPTA a hassle.

She lives five minutes away from campus by car, but taking the bus takes half an hour, she said.

Santos said many of her staff employees do use RIPTA, especially in light of the economic climate. “Things are getting so tough, people are going to start taking the bus,” she said.

Gentry also said there were “big bumps” in ridership last September and October, citing high gas prices as a possible explanation. “As the fuel prices started pushing towards four dollars a gallon, more people considered other forms of transportation,” she said, adding that future increases in fuel prices might have a similar effect.

But “while this service is free to students, faculty and staff, it’s not free for Brown,” Gentry said.

The University currently pays an undisclosed flat rate for every ride by a University community member, but Gentry said that “given RIPTA’s budget situation, it is likely they’ll want to negotiate a higher rate.” The University’s next contract negotiations with RIPTA are in August.

Though the University has worked with RIPTA in the past to create more convenient trolley routes to campus, Gentry said RIPTA is likely to make future route and schedule changes because of its own budget problems.

The quasi-public authority, which receives 39 percent of its annual funding from the state, had originally estimated a $12-million deficit for this fiscal year, but that figure is now down to $1.3 million, the Providence Journal reported Jan. 27.

At the negotiations, the University will also discuss the issue of transfers on multi-stage trips, Gentry said.

RIPTA gives riders a discounted price on the second ticket of a transfer, but the system currently charges Brown the rate for two full rides, she said.

Gail McCarthy, a Dining Services employee, said the UPass program is “a great service” but added that some staff members who take the bus at night are worried about future RIPTA service cuts.

Gale Nelson, assistant director for the Department of Literary Arts, takes the trolley every morning, but said that, for some, there is a “growing disincentive to use (RIPTA)” when buses run less frequently.

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