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Governor’s grade on transportation-environment policies: “D” for Disappointment

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Governor Gina Raimondo sometimes says good things about transportation policy, and she is clearly aware of transportation’s role in the “climate emergency,” yet her actual policies seem to do everything to accommodate the drive-everywhere culture while doing little for any alternatives. Thus I suggest the “D” grade. Here are my top ten reasons for this disappointing assessment:

  1. Following the big money, her administration is spending about $700M for a full rebuilding of the 6-10 expressway interchange (without even studying a community suggestion of a cheaper, less intrusive surface boulevard alternative) and, on a project to widen I-95 northbound right in the middle of Providence. In both cases this is prioritizing motorists who want to speed through the city without being slowed, though induced traffic can result in even more delays to the system.
  2. Also big money, the Governor’s 2021 budget proposes state spending of $100.7 million to reduce property taxes on cars. This is a big tax break for households with many and/or expensive vehicles who contribute the most to congestion and pollution, while no tax relief at all for those without cars or inexpensive ones. The “car tax” may be unpopular with some but it is one the few taxes on actual wealth.
  3. Also encouraging more driving and in conflict with all our land use goals, a new interchange was built on Route 295 to facilitate Citizens Bank moving much of its workforce out of the metro area to the woods of western Johnston.
  4. Despite getting additional Federal revenues, and even though biking/walking is true “zero-emission” travel, perhaps to help pay for item #1, a recent amendment to the state transportation plan, pushed through over public opposition, chopped about $37M out of bicycle and pedestrian programs.
  5. Also disappointing bicyclists, the Governor did not include any bike path funding in her latest Green Bonds proposal in the just released budget. Though previous Green Bonds passed included bike path funds supposed to supplement the regular program financed in the Federal law, progress in extending and connecting our bike paths has been painfully slow and now it seems the South County Path will never reach the beaches.
  6. Instead of making transit easier to use and attract more riders, the Governor, using bond funds that voters approved in 2014 for improving transit hubs, proposed eliminating the central bus hub in Kennedy Plaza, possibly putting part of Washington Street there in a tunnel to speed traffic. There has been no opportunity for public input on this and so far Rhode Island Transit Riders efforts to have a public hearing have been to no avail. Thus many passengers may face longer walks to downtown sites, less access to indoor shelter, information and security, as well as more difficult transfers between some lines. UpriseRI has covered this in several posts.
  7. Also showing some disdain for passengers, the Governor’s appointments to the RIPTA Board of Directors disregarded the state law that it have at least one regular rider. Rhode Island Transit Riders had suggested four qualified such riders for consideration, again so far to no avail. Its hard to imagine an Airport Corporation Board of people who never fly, but for a bus board all non-users seems OK!
  8. The Governor’s administration continues to ignore a state law, RIGL 36-6-21.1, requiring the Department of Administration to seek to reduce state employee commuting miles, in part by offering some a transit pass instead of driving. Instead, parking has been expanded.
  9. Related to #8, despite a request from Rhode Island Transit Riders there is still no bus shelter at the State House, even though three bus lines and an army of state workers, lobbyists, rally attendees, and even tourists go there.
  10. Consistent with indifference to advocates, Raimondo’s Department of Transportation (DOT) Director Peter Alviti has discontinued the quarterly roundtables with the Environment Council of Rhode Island and transportation advocates that had gone on for decades under Governors Almond, Carcieri, Chafee. This limits the opportunities to share information and concerns, especially about the environment.

If wondering why I did not suggest a failing “F” grade, note some good news. “Road Works” sensibly tackles fixing bridges before they get so far gone they need replacement or much more expensive repairs, and it was right to toll the heavy trucks, many from out of state, that do a lot of damage to help pay for this. Credit is due for proceeding on the Pawtucket-Central Fall train station though so far talk of high speed commuter trains to Boston is still only talk. Credit is also due to establishing the Providence-Newport summer ferry service, even promoting an Amtrak connection to it, as well as finishing the Providence pedestrian bridge even though they inherited an expensive design. And there has been some bike progress, for example around Gano Street in Providence, at the University of Rhode Island, and some East Bay Bike Path repairs. Finally I want to note a strong traffic safety program really trying to make roadways safer.

Its not too late for the Governor to improve her legacy and tackle climate change and transportation. She can still help implement the transit and bicycle master plans just developed, the regional Transportation Climate Initiative, and re-establish good communication with advocates. Go for it Gina!

Barry Schiller served on the Board of the Transit Authority 1995-99. He can be reached at bschiller@localnet.com

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