As RI struggles with public transportation, activists hold annual Transit Equity event
Kennedy Plaza continues to be under threat of being emptied of busses as wealthy downtown developers and landlords, including former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr.
Rhode Island Transit Riders joined with other local organizations including the George Wiley Center, RI Organizing Project, and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 618 for a speaking program in Burnside Park on Tuesday to call for Kennedy Plaza to continue to serve a transit function in the future for everyone even after the proposed Dorrance Street hub is completed and urged the state to honor Rosa Parks’ legacy by working harder to achieve transportation equity for all residents.
Transit Equity Day takes place each year on the birthday of Rosa Parks, February 4th, in celebration of her civil rights work, which included transit equity, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus and was arrested. This year, due to the dangerous winter cold conditions, the celebration was delayed to February 7.
Kennedy Plaza continues to be under threat of being emptied of busses as wealthy downtown developers and landlords, including former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. On January 29 Paolino had Providence’s newly elected Mayor Brett Smiley on his interview show and attempted to sway him with a loaded question about the future of busses in Kennedy Plaza.
Paolino: You know one of my pet peeves is Kennedy Plaza and the problems there… because there’s no plan and I get frustrated. Is it going to be moved, will there be a new bus hub and what can happen during a transitionary period? … Have you talked to the governor about this?
Mayor Smiley: I’ve talked to the governor and RIPTA about it. I think you know, but maybe your viewers don’t know, that RIPTA has an RFP… out for a bus hub outside of Garrahy. That’s a big step since the last time I was on your show. They’re actually actively receiving proposals from developers to start that process… but that’s a couple years at best… I’m interested in exploring interim options to see if there’s ways to move the hub prior to the completion of construction that doesn’t provide an additional burden on riders but also helps us address the public safety situation at Kennedy Plaza.
“The things we are working on and are banking on for your support is to improve and invest in Kennedy Plaza as a major hub and as a community wide, significant public space,” said event moderator Rochelle Lee, a member of RI Transit Riders. “We’ve been alarmed by the steady decline in conditions here in Kennedy Plaza, along with RIPTA’s recent flurry of missed bus runs, unreliable bus information, and lack of in-person services. Our members want to make sure that amenities and services like bathrooms and bus waiting areas are available for riders on a consistent and convenient schedule.
“We are here today to celebrate National Transit Equity Day in Rhode Island because transit equity is a civil right, not an option or a dream deferred,” continued Lee. “We are here to hold RIPTA decision makers accountable for their performance and for meeting their capacity on increasing ridership, attracting and retaining workers, and having RIPTA do its part to reduce damage to our environment in a just manner.”
“We are still experiencing a worker shortage,” said Nick DeCristofaro, President of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 618, the union representing RIPTA bus drivers and workers. “The shortage is so bad that retired drivers are being recruited to fill in spots. We’re seeing a wave of retirements, and people just leaving… We must do whatever we can to recruit into our transit system meet the needs in our community….”
“…the George Wiley Center joins with other groups to commemorate Rosa Parks as a leader in both the civil rights movement and in organizing around access to public transportation,” said Camilo Viveiros, executive director of the George Wiley Center. “We gather because we must still rally to assure affordable and accessible public transportation for all, to assure bus drivers get a decent pay, and that services are expanded so we can get to medical appointments, work, school, visit friends and family and be active in civic life.
“We gather to demand that we all have a say in decisions that impact our communities, to demand that bus riders are part of decisions that impact access and affordability to public transportation, including decisions about Kennedy Plaza and location of transportation hubs.”
“Her whole life was about civil rights,” said Jim Vincent, immediate past President of the RI NAACP Providence Branch about Rosa Parks. “On that day, December 5, 1955, she was tired. She wasn’t physically tired. She was tired, but she wasn’t weary. She was tired of the second class citizenship that Black people were going through in Montgomery, Alabama.”
“We represent primarily elderly and adults with disabilities who rely on the bus every single day,” said Ray Gagne, Director of RI Organizing Project. What riders want “is better service. Better night and weekend service. Faster service.” As for Kennedy Plaza? “We need better lighting. We need better crosswalks. We need better services in the terminals… Our worry is that as we continue to develop Dorrance Street in three years, this facility is going to continue to deteriorate.”
Following the speaking portion of the program, RI Transit Rider Patricia Raub led participants on a walking tour around Kennedy Plaza, highlighting its long history as both a civic and a transit center and calling on the state to maintain that balance in the future.