RIPTA proposes streetcar service

Line would connect College Hill to Jewelry District

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 30, 2011

As part of ongoing efforts to develop a thriving knowledge district in Providence, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority released a proposal Monday to launch the “Core Connector” — a two-mile stretch of streetcar service that would run through the Jewelry District, downtown and the heart of College Hill, with a stop in front of the Starbucks on Thayer Street.

The streetcar service was originally the idea of community members involved in Transit 2020, a group that Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., started when he was mayor of Providence to develop a plan for the city’s transit, said Steve Durkee, secretary for the RIPTA board of directors. RIPTA began studying the idea in 2010 when it decided to fully explore the concept of connecting the universities and institutions around the city, Durkee said.

“It is the type of transit decision that is happening in all great 21st century cities,” he added, citing the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., as an example of a city sector that flourished after the creation of a streetcar system.

Using information from case studies, Providence could expect more than 6,000 new jobs and 1,500 new residents over the next 20 years if the Core Connector is put into place, said Amy Pettine, special projects manager for RIPTA.

But RIPTA is in a tough economic situation. Because of budget shortfalls, the organization has been struggling just to keep up with its strategic plan, which calls for an expansion in service, said Charles Odimgbe, RIPTA’s executive director. The agency authorized reductions in frequency on 13 routes Tuesday.

Though RIPTA saw a 1.5 percent increase in ridership last year, the organization is facing a potential 36 percent cut in federal funding, Odimgbe said. RIPTA also gets funding from the state’s tax on gasoline, a source of revenue that has been declining. RIPTA announced Wednesday it would be reducing evening services and cutting more than 20 jobs.

“It’s no secret that RIPTA’s got a funding crisis for this fiscal year,” Pettine said. But the Core Connector is a “long-range project,” she said, and the city has to think ahead.

“Even though we’re in a short-term problem, transportation is very important for the city’s future,” she said. “Talent these days can move anywhere — redeveloping can make your city more attractive.”

For the Core Connector, Pettine said the proposed budget will rely on the federal government, the state and “assessment funds” — asking local non-residential landowners within a quarter-mile of the streetcar’s route to pay a percentage of their property values to the streetcar in exchange for the promise of rising property values when the streetcar line is established.

Legislators must approve the assessment bond proposal before it can be enacted. The University could be asked to pay assessment funds, Pettine said.

In RIPTA’s proposed funding system, landowners within one-quarter mile would pay 55 cents per $1,000 of their property values, and those located within one-eighth of a mile of the streetcar would pay 95 cents per $1,000 of property values.

Dick Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president, who served as vice chair of Transit 2020, said the new streetcar route would be valuable to the entire Providence community, including the University. But “there’s a lot more discussion that will take place” about the specifics of the plan, he said.

Points of debate could include the proposed route — the streetcar plan does not include the train station — whether RIPTA will operate streetcars or other less expensive vehicles and the specifics of costs and financing.

The current plan is “a very expensive system, compared to alternative ways of doing it,” Spies said. “When their basic funding plan is in jeopardy, then their ability to push into new initiatives is more difficult.”

Once a system is in place, Spies said it would help the University by providing a “timely means of access” to the Alpert Medical School and downtown Providence.

The University currently runs a shuttle for members of the Brown community that connects College Hill to downtown. The Brown Med/Downcity Express, which runs weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m and has many stops in the Jewelry District but just one near downtown, saw increased usage after the new Med School building opened in the Jewelry District in August, said Elizabeth Gentry, assistant vice president for financial and administrative services.

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