“RIDOT’s record on public input is very troubling and must be addressed if any merger legislation is developed,” says transportation activist Barry Schiller…
It’s public knowledge that the Raimondo Administration is considering merging the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and the Bridge and Turnpike Authority that operates the Newport and Mt Hope bridges, into the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT). And though it was not on the ggenda of the RIPTA Board of Directors meeting last week, it drew quite a number of comments, at least about the RIPTA part.
In “Public Comments,” always a RIPTA Board agenda item, several complained about lack of RIDOT transparency in contrast to the public’s ability to communicate with RIPTA staff. The transit unions were opposed, saying RIPTA was run pretty well, RIDOT, being represented on the Board was thus already involved, and things were going pretty well so there was no need to change the structure.
But my view about the possible RIDOT-RIPTA merger is nuanced – It’s worth a look. I don’t think things are going so well at RIPTA. With its ridership down from about 21 million to a little over 16 million in a decade or so, it is far from its potential to reduce congestion and pollution, attract progressive businesses, keep our energy dollars in the state’s economy, and help in the fight against climate change. There might be efficiencies in combining agencies, though, the burden of proof is on those proposing the merger to show them. There definitely is potential for better coordination between the commuter rail that RIDOT is responsible for and the RIPTA bus and paratransit service. RIDOT could have more clout than RIPTA with the behind-the-scenes state budget process and in communications such as sending letters out asking towns to ensure clearing snow off sidewalks at bus stops. Most important is Director Peter Alviti‘s claim that RIDOT could be far more successful in obtaining Federal grants for transit as they have been for highways, especially needed if we are to implement the Transit Master Plan being developed that calls for more frequent buses, more service later into the evening, some new routes, and faster trips.
But that said, there is still a need for public oversight – a bus General Manager reporting only to the RIDOT Director is not good enough. There needs to be opportunities for rider, transit advocacy, and public input built in, at least to replace the monthly public comment sessions at the Board meetings which staff and policy makers get to hear. The public also gets to hear about what RIPTA is planning, for example at this meeting, plans for more electric buses, better service in South County, and more.
However, RIDOT’s record on public input is very troubling and must be addressed if any merger legislation is developed. RIDOT has ended the quarterly Environment Council Roundtables, and has proposed major changes in bus routes including eliminating the central bus hub with no opportunity for public and rider input, which shows the danger. The bicycle community also has problems with RIDOT, a previous bike coordinator was re-assigned and now there is little communication even as RIDOT pushed through a plan, over considerable public opposition, to cut bike and pedestrian program funding..
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While the current RIDOT leadership is actively working to get the needed Pawtucket train station built and did develop some innovative programs such as the summer Newport ferry and its Amtrak connection, in general, RIDOT is inherently about building roads and bridges, not about operating and marketing transit which can well take a back seat. Thus, developing legislation to change the RIPTA enabling act needs to also address the RIDOT “mission” if it is to have wider responsibility. If the Governor is smart, she would also have a public input process to develop such legislation so that it has a better chance of being done right and getting support.