Under Governor Gina Raimondo the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) hatched a plan to create three transit hubs in downtown Providence, moving the majority of riders to remote locations far from city services and businesses. Kennedy Plaza, long a centralized transit hub, would be reduced to six berths under this plan. Opposition came swiftly, as The Rhode Island Transit Riders Alliance joined with local organizations, including Grow Smart Rhode Island, the Jewelry District Association and the Providence Preservation Society to highlight the lack of public input in the process of developing the plan as well as the decline in quality of services created by the proposed design. Opponents also noted the plan would disproportionately affect the elderly, disabled and BIPOC populations that make up a majority of transit riders.
The plan is opposed by the Providence City Council and denounced as violating the professional planner’s ethical code and the 1964 Civil Rights Act by the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Planning Association. The plan violates the Transit Master Plan developed during the Raimondo Administration and is the subject of a Title VI lawsuit. Despite opposition the Administrations of Governor Raimondo and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza have continued to aggressively push the plan forward, ignoring the public’s call for a more open, transparent and fair process. Both administrations have sided with downtown property owners and developers who want Kennedy Plaza cleared of the populations of homeless, students and BIPOC workers using public transportation to get to work that they see as detracting from the value of their properties.
Many hoped that incoming Governor Daniel McKee would be open to reversing course on this plan that many see as an attack on public transportation, but instead McKee has fully funded the effort in his proposed FY2022 budget, released on Thursday. In the budget bill, H6122, McKee fully funds the plan, going so far as to extend the termination dates of the bonds approved by the public in 2014 for improvements to public transportation. These bonds, unissued since the 2014 referendum, need to be extended by two years, (without voter approval) in order to get the $20m needed for the Kennedy Plaza renovations and the development of two more hubs.
Raimondo’s (and now McKee’s) use of this bond money is controversial, as Rhode Island voters approved a bond referendum to improve public transportation, not dismantle it. Governor McKee accurately describes the 2014 bonds in one paragraph (page 101) of the thousands of pages of budget documents released on Thursday, saying, “In November 2014, Rhode Island voters approved a referendum for $35.0 million in General Obligation bonds that would ‘fund enhancements and renovations to mass transit hub infrastructure throughout the State of Rhode Island to improve access to multiple intermodal sites, key transportation, healthcare, and other locations.”
The plan to dismantle Kennedy Plaza and distribute the buses across downtown to the detriment of riders, especially elderly, disabled, student and BIPOC riders, is not what voters approved.
DOT’s Director Peter Alviti, through a spokesperson, promised that DOT would engage in robust public engagement about the plan. That public engagement never materialized, and instead we have a budget item, snuck in among thousands of pages, with the effect of thwarting the public interest and undermining public transportation.
This is an inauspicious start to Governor McKee’s administration of the state, and hopefully not a sign of things to come.