Under the specters of public transit budget shortfalls, fare increases and fewer routes, Providence Students for a Democratic Society stormed into a monthly board meeting of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority Monday afternoon, causing the meeting to be adjourned early.
Amid the heat and smell of a conference room filled with too many people, more than 20 SDS members - most of whom were Brown students - took over the meeting at RIPTA's headquarters on Melrose Street. They protested fare hikes, proposed service cuts and RIPTA's power structure, which they said does not adequately represent the public. RIPTA is run by an eight-member Board of Directors appointed by Governor Donald Carcieri '65, said Chelsea Miller, a Rhode Island College student who led the protest.
The RIPTA board originally planned to discuss the fiscal year 2009 budget, among other items, before the protest made it impossible to continue with the regularly scheduled meeting.
As soon as the meeting was called into session, Miller started the protest by sitting down at the board table and placing a placard before her reading, "Chelsea Miller RIPTA Board Member." At the same time, SDS members handed out to board members and others in the room their own agenda for the meeting. The new agenda included motions such as "no cuts or freezes to staff wages and benefits" and "no route shortenings or eliminations."
At first, Board Chairman John Rupp told Miller that he appreciated her coming to the meeting and that she would be given time to make comments at the end. But when Miller continued to speak, Rupp told her she was showing disrespect to the board.
"I am trying to run a meeting and you are out of order," he told Miller.
Whenever Rupp tried to speak over Miller, the protestors used noisemakers and yelled slogans like "Let her speak," "This is what democracy looks like" and "Who's RIPTA? We are RIPTA," After letting Miller voice her group's concerns for a few minutes, Rupp said, "If it's your RIPTA, take the board seat," and adjourned the meeting, prompting cheers from the protestors.
Officer Al Lima of the Providence Police Department, who arrived at the scene after the meeting was adjourned, said the police weren't looking to arrest anyone but were there to "just keep peace."
RIPTA is funded by rider fares and government subsidies, such as the gas tax. Among the SDS's demands was a transfer of RIPTA's deficit this year to the R.I. General Assembly. SDS cited the deficit as $12.2 million, though a RIPTA press release Monday put the figure at $10.8 million, saying it has increased ad revenue and decreased costs to decrease the shortfall. Miller told the board that it should not "put the deficit on the backs of riders" by increasing fares and reducing routes.
She said of the roughly 200 RIPTA riders surveyed by SDS, most said they felt they had no power or voice in the way things were run at the authority.
The protestors also said the board meeting time - Mondays at noon - was inconvenient and inaccessible for most RIPTA riders, since many work nine-to-five jobs.
Miller invited the board members to attend a public meeting that SDS is organizing on Oct. 5, at the Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) offices on Lockwood Street.
Organizers of the protest called it a success.
Mael Vizcarra '09, an SDS representative at the meeting, said the protest "gave a really clear statement to the board and hopefully to Rhode Island that RIPTA riders cannot allow an unrepresentative, undemocratic board to tell us what we have to do."
Still, RIPTA officials said it would be difficult to move forward after the protest.
"I don't have the opportunity to run a meeting," Rupp told The Herald when asked if the board meeting would be rescheduled. "We just lost a month," of progress, since meetings are monthly.
In the coming weeks, RIPTA plans to hold several public meetings in various communities to discuss proposed service reductions in the authority's 2009 budget. Rupp told The Herald that he did not plan on attending the Oct. 5 meeting organized by the group.
Michael Lewis, board member and director of transportation for RIPTA, said it was "unfortunate that the board meeting was allowed to be disrupted," but acknowledged that SDS had a valid message to convey.
"It was an effective protest," he said. "These are the very issues that we as a board are wrestling with."