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RIPTA dreams big for revamped transit

The Metropolitan Providence Transit Enhancement Study — a joint project conducted by the Rhode Island Public Transportation Agency and Mayor David Cicilline's '83 office — was released Dec. 10. The study, which recommends future strategies for Providence public transport, represents the culmination of a four-year city initiative to improve public transportation.

It outlines 10 broad categories of transit recommendations, including plans to introduce a viable streetcar system to Providence, renovating Kennedy Plaza, creating new transit hubs, initiating a Rapid Bus Service and providing additional bus services.

"The recommendations generally fall under one of two categories: meeting current demands and making enhancements for the future or expanding the system and expanding what we normally do," said Amy Pettine, special projects manager in RIPTA's planning department.

"Sometimes people see RIPTA as a struggling agency. ... Why should they support an agency that they think is struggling?" she said.

The study aims to answer questions for these skeptics. "For those who were worried about where RIPTA was headed, it's given them a detailed outline of where we want to go," she said.

Many of the study's recommendations aim to have direct consequences for the Brown community. "We want to make more of a transit infrastructure presence at the top of the (bus) tunnel," Pettine said. "We want to make it look and feel more like a transit hub."
This could include construction of a shelter where the tunnel opens onto Thayer Street.

"We are looking to have a streetcar starter line in the city that would be anchored on one end by Rhode Island Hospital and on the other end by Brown," Pettine said.

The streetcars will connect "meds to eds," she said, creating a direct connection between the Alpert Medical School and Rhode Island Hospital.

University administrators have been supportive of the transportation authority's plans for the new streetcar system recommended in the study, The Herald reported in October.

The streetcar recommendation is currently undergoing an alternative development and environmental review process. This yearlong process will be followed by a pursuit of funding for engineering, operations and construction costs, Pettine said.

The study cost about $500,000 to conduct, about 20 percent of which came from the city, said Matt Stark, Cicilline's director of policy and legislative affairs. It follows on the heels of the Transit 2020 study, which concluded almost three years ago. 

Transit 2020 "laid the foundation upon which a working group ultimately came together to make more concrete recommendations," Stark said.

He said the study was a collaborative process despite the sometimes-disparate goals of RIPTA and city officials.

The cost of implementing all the study's recommendations is estimated at $146 million, with $127 million coming from capital costs and $19 million from annual operating costs, Pettine said.

Stark said he recognized the difficulties in gaining approval for such expensive projects.

"It's obviously a difficult state climate to talk about allocating dollars for state expenses and we have to take a lot of local responsibility in operational costs," he said. "Our challenges are based in making the case that this should be a proud investment for the greater metro area."

Officials from the transportation authority testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Separation of Powers last month, according to a Dec. 15 article in the Providence Journal. Reactions to the proposals were "mixed" and many House members were critical of the steep costs, according to the Journal. The committee's leadership did not respond to The Herald's requests for comment.

Despite the skepticism, Cicilline continues to push the plan forward, Pettine said. Cicilline created a new Transit 2020 Action Group, which "will be responsible for actually implementing this plan," Pettine said. The action group is being run by a number of community leaders, including Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior advisor to President Ruth Simmons.

The city and RIPTA are currently looking for funding for the remaining unfunded elements of the plan. "We are in the process of making a case that transit is indeed worth placing an investment in," Stark said.

Some elements of the plan, such as the Rapid Bus routes, have already received funding and will be implemented soon, Pettine said.


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