A new plan that proposes a complete transformation of the Kennedy Plaza transit hub has sparked controversy among Providence community members.
The plan, released by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation Sept. 5, includes building a bus tunnel underneath Washington Street, which runs between Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park, as well as a pedestrian overpass that connects the two areas. The proposal also includes a multi-hub bus system that would replace the current model, which is centralized in Kennedy Plaza. The four proposed bus hubs would be located at Providence Station, West Passage, Garrahy Courthouse and Victory Plating.
RIDOT plans to fund the project with portions of a $35 million infrastructure bond and $25 million dedicated to renovating the Providence train station, according to the Associated Press.
The plan aims to enhance access and connectivity by transitioning the bus system out of Kennedy Plaza to outlying hubs and support economic development, according to RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin.
The proposed tunnel and pedestrian overpass in Kennedy Plaza “allows for the free and safe movement of all people through the plaza, an area that will continue to see almost a thousand bus trips per day,” St. Martin wrote in an email to The Herald. The tunnel and overpass would also reduce conflicts that lead to bus fatalities, he added. Supporters of the proposed redesign of Kennedy Plaza and the transit system say it will help passengers safely move between the newly created bus hubs and key business districts in downtown Providence.
But transit advocates like the Rhode Island Transit Riders say the plan will actually make using public transportation more difficult for riders.
John Flaherty, deputy director of GrowSmart Rhode Island and a member of Rhode Island Transit Riders, said that these new routes would stop at only one of the four hubs, requiring passengers who need to transfer routes to walk between hubs in order to make their connections — a situation he described as “really problematic.”
Flaherty also criticized the plan for not being integrated with the Transit Master Plan, a joint effort by RIDOT, RIPTA and the Division of Statewide Planning to revamp the state’s transit system, which was initiated last year. The proposed plan also does not incorporate community feedback like the master plan does, he added.
“Kennedy Plaza is such an important part of the transit system that the plan for it should be within the broader context of the transit vision and Master Plan,” Flaherty said.
According to retired member of the RIPTA Board of Directors Barry Schiller, the centralization of Kennedy Plaza is important to the transit system. RIPTA had worked to centralize the hub because of its popular location, and because it provides access to both connections and an indoor waiting room with restrooms, tickets, bus information and security, he said.
“It’s very hard to get people who don’t use (public transit) to even give it a try,” Schiller said, “and if they just have scattered bus hubs then it’s going to be more confusing. It will be harder to explain what to do to people who don’t know it, and it’s hard enough as it is.” Schiller added that RIPTA ridership has already dropped from approximately 21 million annual riders to about 16 million over the past decade.
Instead of the proposed plan, Schiller would like to see collaboration between transit riders, the parks conservancy, environmentalists and the business community to come up with a way to improve Kennedy Plaza.
But The Providence Foundation, a nonprofit organization that “represents the interests of downtown business owners, property owners, residents and nonprofit institutions,” according to its website, has come out in support of parts of the proposed plan but against aspects such as the proposed bus tunnel under Washington Street. Joe Paolino, a member of the foundation’s board of directors, former mayor of Providence and managing partner for Paolino Properties, supports the plan as it stands.
He noted that the four proposed hubs would be located near many places of employment and government buildings, and the hub at the train station would “create a true intermodal area, where buses and trains are working together.”
Paolino added that removing the bus stops from Kennedy Plaza would improve safety and could help transform the space into a “celebratory area” that could serve the Providence community. His vision for Kennedy Plaza includes benches, bike racks, fountains and activities for families, workers and visitors to downtown Providence. “It’s going to be good for the community, and that’s what we would like to see. It’s tough to do that with all the diesel smoke and starting up from the buses,” he said.
This vision appears to align with RIDOT’s plan for the pedestrian overpass, which St. Martin wrote would “unite the park and plaza into one cohesive civic space.”
But building a tunnel and overpass in Kennedy Plaza might not occur if it is not feasible under budget and time constraints, he added, noting that RIDOT is “still in the concept design phase and public outreach process” of the plan. In terms of next steps, RIDOT will “formally request developers to submit proposals on the redesign this fall,” according to the Associated Press, and “the decision is ultimately going to be made by the governor about what plan emerges,” Flaherty said. .
Although Paolino likes the idea of an overpass, this project is not critical to his support of the overall plan. “If there’s a large segment of the community that says we’d rather not see that, that’s not a deal breaker,” he said.
But even without the proposed tunnel, Flaherty would still oppose this plan. “That’s a step in the right direction,” he said, “but the RIDOT proposal still has a lot of concerns for those of us that are transit advocates.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that The Providence Foundation had come out in support of the proposed plan to redesign Kennedy Plaza. In fact, the group opposes key parts of the plan, primarily the proposed bus tunnel under Washington Street. The article has been updated to reflect that change. The Herald regrets the error.