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Senator Kallman and Rep Felix propose free RIPTA bus fare legislation

“Public transportation cuts across so many issues,” said Senator Meghan Kallman. “It’s a climate and environment issue. It’s a neighborhood and quality-of-life issue. It’s an economic issue. When we acknowledge this critical link between public transit, job access and social equity, the need for this legislation becomes obvious. Good public transit is a cornerstone of both climate readiness and social justice.”



Rhode Island State Senator Meghan Kallman (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket, North Providence) and Representative Leonela Felix (Democrat, District 61, Pawtucket) are in the process of drafting legislation that, if passed, would provide free transportation on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) buses. They made the announcement at a press conference in the vitally important Kennedy Plaza bus hub in downtown Providence. Senator Dawn Euer (Democrat, District 13, Newport, Jamestown) acted as emcee at the press event.

As noted in the press release that accompanied the announcement, “Recent studies point to a growing preference and use of public transportation by younger Americans, particularly those in the millennial cohort, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. This is due to a number of factors, including less vehicle ownership and reliance; less need for travel due to more work and socialization at home via online access; more travel by foot, bike and shared-use services such car-sharing and ride-hailing.”

“As General Treasurer, my highest priority is promoting economic growth and financial security for Rhode Islanders,” said General Treasurer Seth Magaziner. “Free public transportation can grow our economy by more efficiently getting Rhode Islanders to and from their places of employment, education, and training, and helping workers to keep more of the money they earn and spending it in the local economy. I am pleased to stand with our partners today to advocate for a service that would help keep us competitive in the regional economy while supporting Rhode Island workers.”

“Public transportation cuts across so many issues,” said Senator Kallman. “It’s a climate and environment issue. It’s a neighborhood and quality-of-life issue. It’s an economic issue. When we acknowledge this critical link between public transit, job access and social equity, the need for this legislation becomes obvious. Good public transit is a cornerstone of both climate readiness and social justice.”

Senator Kallman also touted the legislation as a significant component of Climate Jobs Rhode Island, a major enviro-economic initiative that was launched earlier this year to transition Rhode Island toward a net-zero emission economy by the year 2050.

“Public transportation is one of the most effective ways to conserve energy while also growing local economies,” said Senator Kallman. “Switching from a 20-mile commute alone by car to public transportation can reduce annual CO2 emissions by 20 pounds per day; and keeping fare money in people’s pockets – especially during a recession – can help stimulate the economy.”

“Public transportation is a significant part of the fight for racial and social justice,” said Representative Felix. “We know that low-income and people of color use public transportation up to twice as frequently as white Americans. One of the most significant barriers to equitable transportation for low-income people is cost. This legislation ensures that everyone — regardless of race, ethnicity, or class — has a safe way to get to work or school, and to access critical services like health care or food. This will help employers as well, giving them access to a wider pool of workers.”

“Being the first state in the nation to be able to talk about having a free public transportation system is one more arrow in th quiver that we need to attract businesses into this state,” said Patrick Crowley, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and co-executive director of Climate Jobs RI. “The more people that come to work here, the better off this economy will be.”

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James Celenza, director of the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (RICOSH) said that the climate crisis and the pandemic intersect when it comes to public transportation, and that it is essential to solve both issues.

“It’s a little ironic that we’re holding this [event] in Kennedy Plaza, given that Kennedy Plaza is right now under threat from developers who want to move everybody out of this hub,” noted UpriseRI.

In response, Treasurer Magaziner, and Senators Euer and Kallman all expressed their opposition to the current plans to get rid of the Kennedy Plaza bus hub.

Senator Kallman went further, when UpriseRI pointed out that currently, there are no operational bathrooms in Kennedy Plaza.

“Both of these questions get to the crux of who development is for and who transportation is for,” said Senator Kallman. “That also includes services, that includes amenities, that includes care for the facilities upon which everybody depends.”

WPRO’s Steve Klamkin drilled down into the numbers, as in how much the proposal will cost. Senator Kallman said that though the final bill has not yet been drafted, and will be introduced in the coming weeks, she expects the funding to come out of gas tax collections and the proposed carbon tax.

The idea for free bas fares in Rhode Island was first reported on by UpriseRI in 2018, when Professor Barry Schiller, a contributor to UpriseRI who served on the RIPTA Board from 1995-99 addressed the RIPTA Board during public comment.

Schiller presented the following points in favor:

  • About of third of RIPTA’s passengers already ride free.
  • There are new opportunities because the state departments concerned with climate change, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Division of Planning are “finally dealing with transportation.” Efforts have been focused on energy generation but transportation is the biggest and fastest growing area of green house gas emissions.
  • The cost isn’t as great as might be assumed. Riders pay about $12.3 million. With other payments into the system the revenue that would have to be made up comes to about $14 million. “Not insignificant,” said Schiller, “but not an outrageous reach.” Schiller also pointed out the opportunity for savings: No fare box processing, not printing of passes, no fare box maintenance. And of course, it would speed up boarding.
  • It would put Rhode Island on the map: We would be the only state in the country with free bus service.

In 2019 Schiller followed up with an oped: Barry Schiller: Car-free in Rhode Island? It’s possible!

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.