Public Pushback on Senate President’s RIPTA Overhaul: Democracy or Dictatorship?
Controversy swirls as Senate President Dominick Ruggerio pushes two Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) bills through the Senate Finance Committee in record time. Despite overwhelming public objection to the legislation, both bills are expected to be voted on next week, raising questions about government transparency and public influence.
When a bill is first brought before a committee in the Rhode Island General Assembly, it doesn’t usually pass out of the committee within an hour of being heard. It is usually held for further study, ostensibly so the members of the committee can consider testimony from members of the public, and/or from lobbyists, who are in favor of or opposed to the legislation. But when the legislation is being sponsored by the Senate President, these conventions are abandoned, as happened on Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who is an ex officio member of every Senate Committee, sat in on the action, in Senate Finance on Thursday night. He was sponsoring two bills concerning the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority(RIPTA). Both bills unanimously passed out of the committee and onto the floor of the Senate for a full vote sometime next week, never mind that no member of the public spoke in favor of the Senate President’s second bill – in fact, every member of the public who testified in person at the hearing spoke strongly against it.
“While the original bill, S0991, would have placed much of RIPTA’s operation under the auspices of RIDOT [Rhode Island Department of Transportation], the sub A is much narrower in scope,” said Senate President Ruggerio, introducing the legislation. The original bill would have placed RIPTA under the control of RIDOT, but pushback against this necessitated coming up with anew, bite-sized approach. “The sub A simply provides that the director of the Department of Transportation shall serve as the chairman of the board of RIPTA.
“While I believe that [RIDOT] should oversee all transportation matters in our state, including public transit, this is an important step towards the alignment of all our transportation goals: effective procurement, efficient use of federal funds, and moving our public transportation forward,” continued the Senate President, before moving passage. [Note: The Senate President mistakenly said RIPTA when he meant to say RIDOT.]
The bill also expands the board from eight to nine members and establishes a quorum with the presence of five members instead of four. All board members are still to be nominated by the Governor with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. If passed by both chambers and signed by the Governor, the changes take effect on July 1st.
Committee members were eager to pass the amended bill. Senator Susan Sosnowski (Democrat, District 37, Block Island, South Kingstown) asked the Senate President a clarifying question about the bill, but prefaced her inquiry with, “I will definitely support this legislation.” This despite the fact that no public testimony had been heard.
When public testimony was heard, it was uniformly in opposition to the legislation. Testimony was presented by Barry Schiller of the RI Transit Riders, environmentalist Greg Gerritt, John Flaherty from GrowSmart RI, East Side resident Cedric Yee, David Mann, Randall Rose, Bike Newport communications manager Merrill Sampson, lead organizer of the Providence Streets Coalition Liza Burkin, and Pawtucket resident Dillan Giles all testified against the bill.
Patrick Crowley outlined a number of reasons for his union’s support of the legislation.
- RIPTA would be more accountable, because Transportation Directors are nominated by the Governor and approved by the Senate. The executive director of RIPTA is hired by the RIPTA Board. The new proposal roots the board in Senate, and by extension public approval.
- Expanding the board members from eight to nine assures that decisions do not end up in a tie. Presently the Transportation Director is an ex officio member of the RIPTA board, and can vote.
- Current law enables the board to elect a chair from among its members. A chair designated by statute will improve oversight.
Senator Samuel Zurier (Democrat, District 3, Providence) sits on the Finance Committee and heard testimony from a number of his constituents opposed to the legislation. Senator Zurier commented during the hearing that his constituent Cedric Yee had “a very important perspective” and that he was glad that it was brought before the committee. Nevertheless, Senator Zurier voted in lockstep with his colleagues and for the legislation.
In his weekly constituent letter Senator Zurier framed the argument:
“The Senate Finance Committee reviewed two bills to revise the management and governance of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). Bill S-773 would establish procurement procedures, while Bill S-991 Sub A would elevate the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) from non-voting board member to Board Chair. Proponents argued that these bills could establish needed guardrails to better coordinate the relationships between the RIPTA Director and the Board on the one hand, and among Board members on the other. Opponents questioned RIDOT’s commitment to public transportation, and urged the Senate to address a higher RIPTA priority, namely its need for greater funding.”
Senator Zurier does not mention in his constituent letter that he sided with proponents when he voted, but goes on to talk about the need for additional funding for RIPTA, which was pointedly not the subject of Thursday night’s hearing.
“At the hearing, I inquired about RIPTA’s current governance structure as a quasi-public corporation. As I read the enabling statute, RIPTA’s board already has the authority to adopt resolutions to establish policies and procedures, so it is my hope they will make better use of that authority in the future. I agree with Thursday night’s witnesses that RIPTA needs additional State resources, as it is an essential part of our State’s economic well-being and environmental future. As a result, I will continue my commitment to support legislative oversight of RIDOT especially with regard to its responsibilities to implement the State’s Transit Master Plan and Act on Climate.”
Before the Committee hearing began there was a rally outside the Rhode Island State House organized by the Rhode Island Transit Riders in opposition to the Senate President’s bill.
Rhode Island Transit Riders issued the following statement outlining the reasons for their opposition to the bill:
Though we are pleased that the Assembly has substantially amended S0991 so that it is no longer a potentially disastrous complete takeover of RIPTA by RIDOT – possibly because sponsors knew there were rumblings of opposition from RI Transit Riders as well as many other concerned groups and individuals, RI Transit Riders is still opposed to S991A for several reasons:
- First, the bill RITR would like to see, and what RIPTA truly needs, is one that addresses the fiscal cliff that RIPTA will face. A change in Board structure does not produce the needed funding to enable a robust public transit system that would help alleviate climate change, improve the environment and the economy, while also addressing social inequities.
- RIPTA and its current Board encourages public engagement. While we may not always agree with RIPTA policies, we do have an opportunity to address its Board and key staff at public comment at the monthly Board meetings. In addition, RIPTA engages with the public on major policy questions such as fare policy, significant schedule changes, its Comprehensive Operations Analysis, and the development of its Downtown Transit Corridor. Its Board includes members from diverse professional backgrounds, including—by law—at least one regular rider of its fixed route system and one person with a disability.
- In contrast, not only does RIDOT have no formal mechanism for public input, its current leadership has eliminated the quarterly “Roundtables” that previous Directors scheduled with community groups during the Almond, Carcieri and Chafee administrations. With this record we can have little confidence that the RIDOT Director will welcome, or even allow, public comment at Board meetings if the bill passes.
- RIDOT is auto-centric and has not been supportive of bus transit. RIDOT failed for years to implement the bond to improve transit hubs that voters approved in 2014. Eventually, without consulting riders, they proposed an impractical “multihub” plan downtown to replace the Kennedy Plaza hub that would have made the system less convenient and more confusing. Eventually, not just RITR, but also the Providence City Council, the local American Planning Association, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and many community groups all publicly opposed the plan and Governor McKee finally took it off the table.
- In addition, RIDOT, in a cost-cutting move, removed amenities including an indoor waiting room and restroom facilities from the plans for the Pawtucket-Central Falls Transit Center. Again, the Governor, and RIPTA, had to intervene to restore amenities to the plan.
- It is inherent in RIDOT’s mission to be primarily about highways, and the department is now deeply focused on expanding highway capacity. Transit would be secondary at best. It is not reasonable that its head should be a primary spokesperson for transit.
- That said, we do think it is a good idea to continue having the RIDOT Director on the RIPTA Board. Historically this has often provided needed coordination of the agencies and general transportation expertise to Board deliberations.
- There is no compelling reason for this change in Board structure. We think by many measures RIPTA is doing a good job given its relatively low level of funding. What is truly important: first, avoiding RIPTA’s projected deficits once Covid funding runs out and the decline in the gas tax accelerates, and, second, building a robust transit system as called for in the state-approved Transit Master Plan. We need to implement the TMP as a practical alternative for those motorists burdened by the high costs of buying, operating, and insuring one or more vehicles, to keep more of our energy dollars in the state instead of flowing out to out-of-state oil interests, to help reduce congestion on our roads, to support compact, walkable energy-efficient neighborhoods, and most importantly, to address climate change as we are now mandated to do.
Thus, we urge the committee not to approve the bill.
RI TRANSIT RIDERS SUPPORTS STRONG, INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP TO FIGHT FOR BETTER PUBLIC TRANSIT IN RHODE ISLAND
We urge the legislature to work with RIPTA, RIDOT, and other stakeholders, including transit, social equity, and environmental groups, on the funding and policies that will help develop the first- class transit system that Rhode Island needs and deserves. This matter much more than simply switching the board personnel around.
- Funding: We call for a study group composed of state legislators, other officials, and advocates to determine an adequate and reliable funding source for RIPTA that will replace or supplement the gas tax.
- Agency Leadership: The Senate has reconfirmed Peter Alviti as Director of RIDOT, and the RIPTA board has voted to extend Scott Avedisian’s tenure as C.E.O. of RIPTA for an additional two years so Director Alviti and C.E.O. Avedisian must work more closely together for the foreseeable future.
- As Rhode Island’s transportation head, Alviti needs to engage more often with the public. One way to do this would be to reinstate the quarterly Roundtable discussions that he discontinued when he became transportation director.
- We encourage Director Alviti to continue to attend the monthly RIPTA board meetings as an ex-officio member and contribute his considerable transportation expertise to board decisions. We encourage Director Alviti and C.E.O. Avedisian to meet regularly and frequently in their current capacities to align priorities and implement projects of mutual benefit to both motorists and transit riders.
- More Forceful RIPTA C.E.O. We expect C.E.O. Avedisian to advocate for public transit more strongly and more often than he has done in the past. As the state’s primary spokesperson for public transit, Avedisian needs to be more visible—with state legislators and with the media.
- Most of all, Scott Avedisian needs to promote the vision of a better, more inclusive public transit system described in the Transit Master Plan. This document, the result of many months of work on the part of several state agencies and with the input of the public, is an ambitious and exciting blueprint for growing ridership throughout the state by increasing bus frequency and servicing outlying areas that currently have little to no transit service now. Implementing the Transit Master Plan—and getting more motorists onto buses—will achieve 80% of the Act on Climate vehicle miles traveled goals. Avedisian needs to make the case for public transit’s outsized role in combating climate change. He is the principal person who must make this case; we do not need a power struggle between the board president and the agency’s chief administrator to weaken this important campaign.
RI Transit Riders is strongly in favor of the TMP, and we have been working with state legislators to start providing the additional funding needed to implement it. Avedisian needs to spearhead this effort, and he should encourage members of his board, including ex-officio member Director Alviti, to actively support him in this regard. Without strong leadership, the vision contained in the Transit Master Plan will remain just that: a vision.