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Title VI civil rights complaint filed against RIDOT/RIPTA plan to break up Kennedy Plaza

The complaint calls upon RIPTA and RIDOT “to take action halting this deeply flawed RIDOT Multi-Hub plan and to commit to an open public process with all community stakeholders to develop alternative plans for improving the public space in Kennedy Plaza for all to enjoy, while also improving the transit experience for thousands of passengers traveling through downtown Providence.”

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A Title VI civil rights complaint (here and here) was filed against the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) on Monday over the “deeply flawed and harmful plan… to dismantle and virtually eliminate the central bus hub in downtown Providence, disproportionately and negatively impacting people of color and low income populations across Rhode Island.”

The complaint was signed by John Flaherty, Deputy Director of Grow Smart RI and Dwayne Keys, President of the South Providence Neighborhood Association. Both organizations are part of the Rhode Island Transit Riders coalition.

The coalition maintains that the RIDOT/RIPTA/Raimondo Administration plan to break up Kennedy Plaza will lead to worse service, greater inconvenience for users and less use of public transportation. They maintain that the current plan violates all the objectives of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This isn’t some invented claim. Recently the American Planning Association of Rhode Island issued a statement declaring the plan harmful to people of color and people of lesser means. The plan has received support only from a small group of downtown landowners and business interests.

UpriseRI spoke with John Flaherty by Zoom.

We spoke about the timing of filing a Title VI civil rights complaint on MLK Day, about the prospects of preventing the dismantling of Kennedy Plaza under a Daniel McKee governorship, and the possibility of coming up with a plan that improves Kennedy Plaza both as a public space and as a transportation hub.

The objectives of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are to:

  1. Ensure that the level and quality of transportation service is provided without regard
    to race, color, or national origin;
  2. Identify and address, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human
    health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects of programs
    and activities on minority populations and low-income populations;
  3. Promote the full and fair participation of all affected populations in transportation
    decision making;
  4. Prevent the denial, reduction, or delay in benefits related to programs and activities
    that benefit minority populations or low-income populations;
  5. Ensure meaningful access to programs and activities by persons with limited English
    proficiency.

In their complaint, Flaherty and Keys lay out a sequence of events that they believe resulted in a public decision adversely affecting one group of people more than another in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • July 16, 2020 – Select community stakeholders were first presented with RIDOT’s 3rd proposal in four years for reconfiguring transit operations in Downtown Providence (previous plans also lacked public input and were scrapped following broad community opposition). Neither RIDOT nor RIPTA advertised a public hearing prior to or following the proposal’s release to gather feedback from transit riders or the general public. The proposal was shared by RIDOT beginning July 16th to select invited guests via zoom presentations. No transit stakeholder input was solicited in the scoping or formulation of the plan. And while this plan was initiated and driven by RIDOT and the Office of the Governor, we assert that the RIPTA Board of Directors had a responsibility and an obligation to its patrons to evaluate, scrutinize and vote on any proposed system changes that impact riders and to fulfill its duties in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
    • It is notable that this RIDOT plan for reconfiguring and dismantling the central bus hub in Kennedy Plaza was not put forth or vetted as part of the broader TransitForwardRI statewide transit vision and master plan developed under RIPTA’s leadership with abundant public participation. Planning for TransitForwardRI got underway in May 2018 and was adopted by the RI State Planning Council on December 10, 2020.
  • July 16, 2020 to present – Concerned with the negative impacts associated with the RIDOT proposal, transit advocates and community stakeholders began mobilizing in opposition to the plan. More than 1,000 people signed a petition calling on the Governor to halt it. The controversy has been well-documented in the media since that time – an inventory of articles, letters of opposition, petition, etc. can be viewed HERE.
  • September 30, 2020 – Responding to mounting public concern, the Providence City Council Committee on Urban Redevelopment, Renewal and Planning (URRP) advertised and held a public hearing about the RIDOT Multi-Hub plan. Transit riders and others who testified at this virtual public hearing overwhelmingly expressed opposition to the plan.
  • October 15, 2020 – The Providence City Council unanimously approved a Resolution opposing the Multi-Hub plan citing “adverse impacts to everyday RIPTA riders including people of color, low-income communities, seniors and persons with disabilities”.
  • October 21, 2020 – RIPTA Board Chair Norman Benoit expressed his support of the RIDOT plan during a RIPTA Board meeting with no formal position or vote taken by the Board – minutes. Rider concerns about process were reaffirmed in this Providence Business News editorial.
  • November 5, 2020 – Despite overwhelming opposition and no public hearings held by RIPTA or RIDOT, the Governor held a virtual press conference with the RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza to announce that the plan was moving forward.
  • November 10, 2020 – RIDOT issued a design-bid-build request for proposals to implement the Multi-Hub Plan. The RFP envisions groundbreaking by August, 2021.

In their complaint, Flaherty and Keys explain, in detail, all the ways they see the current plan violating the objectives of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They end their complaint calling upon RIPTA and RIDOT “to take action halting this deeply flawed RIDOT Multi-Hub plan and to  commit to an open public process with all community stakeholders to develop alternative plans for  improving the public space in Kennedy Plaza for all to enjoy, while also improving the transit experience for  thousands of passengers traveling through downtown Providence.”



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See below for earlier coverage:

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.

atomicsteve@gmail.com