Officials have been planning potential designs for a new central bus hub and more bus stops for downtown Providence since 2014, after a $35 million bond issue was approved for the redevelopment of Rhode Island’s transit system. RIDOT’s multi-hub plan, which would spread the Kennedy Plaza bus hub over three different locations — Kennedy Plaza, Dyer Street and the Providence Train Station — was met with significant public backlash after it was announced in 2020.
Now, the multi-hub plan is one of three alternatives to the city’s current bus system. The key parties involved — the Governor’s Office, RIDOT and Rhode Island Public Transit Authority — plan to hold public hearings to assess the popularity of the three options, although the dates have yet to be announced, according to Providence Business News.
RIDOT and RIPTA will hold “new meetings with the public in the near future” about a new central bus hub, Charles St. Martin, chief public affairs officer at Rhode Island Department of Transportation, wrote in an email to The Herald. According to St. Martin, RIDOT began discussing having public meetings last April.
Opponents of the multi-hub plan maintain that buses would be much harder to access. “The multi-hub plan just creates more transfers, and there is practically no support for it amongst riders,” said Ray Gagne, executive director of the Rhode Island Organizing Project, which works to increase access to transportation, health care and community services. “From a transit point of view, the plan doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know why it’s still on the table — it’s laughable, quite honestly.”
Grow Smart Rhode Island, an organization advocating for sustainable economic growth, also believes that the multi-hub plan would be a step backwards. “The multi-hub will unnecessarily complicate riders’ lives,” said Executive Director of Grow Smart R.I. Scott Wolf. “It makes the transit system harder to use, and it isn’t a very functional proposal,” he added.
One of RIDOT’s alternate proposals is to keep the bus stops in Kennedy Plaza while making modifications to the terminal building and improving security around the area, according to Rhode Island Transit Riders, a grassroots advocacy group seeking to improve public transportation in the state. The group wrote a letter to Gov. Dan McKee in September advocating for this plan and arguing that Kennedy Plaza should remain Providence’s central bus hub.
The letter cites surveys conducted by the group in which passengers overwhelmingly preferred leaving the hub in Kennedy Plaza and using the bond money to build new bus hubs around the state, improve roads, upgrade traffic signal patterns and modernize the Plaza itself.
“Kennedy Plaza is the place to be. People here are already very familiar with it,” said Patricia Raub, a coordinator for the Rhode Island Transit Riders. “In general, both riders and bus drivers want to stay in Kennedy Plaza. The Plaza does need some upgrading, though.” Raub added that the Plaza could improve its lighting, add more restrooms and even a restaurant.
But other groups have raised questions over the effectiveness of this option, emphasizing the need for an indoor bus hub. Nick Freeman, the assistant director of the Providence Foundation, said that improving security at the Plaza did not sufficiently address riders’ biggest concern — namely, the fact that Kennedy Plaza “is an outdoor bus hub in a New England city” that oscillates between “long and cold” winters and “hot and humid” summers.
“I’ve ridden on RIPTA 10 times a week since I was 14, and I sometimes have to run four blocks to get a connection,” Freeman said, adding that it’s difficult to expand ridership, especially to “parents, kids, the elderly or for people with disabilities” when “people are told they have to run between stops and stand outside in the heat and the cold.”
RIDOT’s third option is the Dorrance Street plan, which would, over the course of two years, transform two surface-level parking lots into an indoor transportation hub complete with additional workforce housing — housing targeted specifically for middle-income workers — retail space and break rooms for bus drivers, according to the Providence Journal. As well as creating a revitalized indoor space, one of the benefits of the Dorrance Street proposal is that it would help to address Rhode Island’s housing crisis, proponents say.
Rhode Island is not producing enough housing units to meet demand, Wolf said. “For Rhode Island to solve its housing crisis, the governor needs to embrace projects like this.”
Freeman favors the Dorrance Street Plan, saying it would free up space for the Kennedy Plaza to become something more than a bus stop.
“Kennedy Plaza should be the crown jewel of the Downtown area — the bus stop we have now doesn’t make the best use of it. The Plaza should have restaurants and kiosks — it should be a place for civic engagement rather than a bus hub,” Freeman added.
For regular RIPTA rider Edilberta Trejo, though, the Dorrance Street proposal still poses many unanswered questions.
“I have been using RIPTA for over 30 years, and I haven’t seen any positive changes take place in this time. It would be great to have all the buses together, but you need to make sure there is space on Dorrance Street to have the station built,” she said, adding that “the entire community should have a say here.”
Gagne expressed similar concerns: “We still don’t know the impact of the Dorrance Street plan on traffic and pedestrian safety. At this point, that proposal is too vague.” He said those involved in designing the Dorrance Street plan have failed to demonstrate that it improves the current transit system.
“What everyone really wants is a better bus service — for buses to come every 10 minutes and be reliable,” he added.
The Kennedy Plaza Resilience Coalition released a statement Jan. 17 calling for a minimum two weeks’ notice in advance of the hearings so that a meaningful number of people can attend them.
“It remains to be seen if these hearings are going to take place. We don’t even know if they will be legitimate hearings, where officials are asking for our input rather than simply telling us what they’re going to do,” said Raub, who thinks “everything (should) be built as presented” to the public.
“We don’t want the state to say they didn’t have enough money to finish building the proposal they pick,” she said. “We’re worried the hearings are not going to allow everyone’s voices to be heard.”
“RIDOT and RIPTA have committed to a public process throughout, including meeting with more than 16 stakeholders early in planning,” wrote St. Martin.
Meanwhile, Rachel Robinson, director of the Providence Preservation Society, expressed more optimism over the upcoming meetings: “This is a big issue … there needs to be as much participation as possible from the ridership,” she said. “I am hopeful that the state will take this seriously and involve as many people as possible — especially after the backlash caused by the multi-hub plan.”