Members of GA agree on equity in public transportation, but some lack specifics

At the Transit Equity Day rally held in Providence on Friday, Representative Carlos Tobon spoke about the importance of transit equity, and offered his support for the concept – but was not specific about what transit equity actually looks like.

Photo for Members of GA agree on equity in public transportation, but some lack specifics

Published on February 14, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

“I want to thank you all for having me here today to join you in highlighting the need for transit equity and what we can do as a state to achieve the transit services that our residents deserve” said Representative Carlos Tobon (Democrat, District 58, Pawtucket – RI Rank #46).

Tobon chairs the House Finance Subcommittee on the Environment and Transportation. It’s an important position in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. No state spending that impacts environmental or transportation equity will get into the budget without first coming before Tobon’s subcommittee. Though there are limits on the power of Representative Tobon’s position – the Subcommittee Chair answers to the House Finance Chair, Marvin Abney, who answers to House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi as the ultimate arbiter of the final budget – Tobon occupies a powerful seat when it comes to championing and advocating for issues of transportation equity inside the power structure of House leadership.

“As a Representative from Pawtucket where public transit is highly utilized, I firmly support efforts to instill transit equity by improving transit service across Rhode Island for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, or physical ability,” said Representative Tobon, to the enthusiastic reception of those attending the rally. “Rhode Islanders need a transit service that gets them where they need to go quickly, conveniently, affordably and with dignity. They also need a transit service that protects the environment by reducing emissions and pollution that is harmful to our resident’s health. By achieving these goals, we will achieve transit equity and this equity is only possible through the hard work and dedication of all those involved and here with us today.”

One important transit equity bill winding its way through the General Assembly is a proposal from Senator Meghan Kallman (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket – RI Rank #11) and Representative Leonela Felix (Democrat, District 61, Pawtucket – RI Rank #39) that would would provide for free fares on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) buses. This proposal has the full support of unions such as the AFL-CIO, General Treasurer and Congressional candidate Seth Magaziner, and Senator Dawn Euer, chair of the Senate Environmental Committee who successfully pushed the Act on Climate bill through the General Assembly last session.

Read H7448 and S2015 here.

After he made his enthusiastic comments about equity, Uprise RI asked Representative Tobon about the possibility of the free RIPTA bus fare bills getting through the General Assembly.

Representative Tobon: Leonela Felix introduced it last year in the House and I think it’s an interesting concept but I’m a numbers guy. For me it’s not about “Let’s go out there and try it a few times,” it’s about “is it sustainable, can we keep doing it?”

If the conditions change, will we be able to continue to sustain this or are we going to take it away from people and make it harder?”

Uprise RI: So at this time you don’t know the fiscal note on it, is that the idea?

Tobon: Yeah. So the president mentioned earlier that RIPTA still needs more money just to operate – never mind putting in routes that create some kind of revenue. [Representative Tobon is here referring to Nick DeCristofaro, president and Business Agent for the Rhode Island Amalgamated Transit Union, who spoke earlier at the Transit Equity Day event. DeCristofaro’s comments can be heard here.]

One of the things that I explored years back with [former Representative] Kenny Marshall* is trying to create a pass [good for] for off-peak hours. That wouldn’t cost us money versus [doing so for] peak hours.

Uprise RI: Isn’t that how some of the old passes worked?

Tobon: Yeah. We were trying to bring that back because we’re paying for it anyway if there’s a bus that’s empty and driving around.

But at the end of the day, in regards to your question, anything that’s going to make the life of our residents better and easier – I am in full support. But we have to make sure that services don’t get cut because financially we can’t cover that bill.

Uprise RI: What does it look like to be assured that this plan is sustainable?

Tobon: What it looks like is we need to identify areas where maybe we find technologies that create efficiencies – or you know, the investments we make – – it’s plethora of things. The main thing is how do we find cost savings in one area without cutting and making things harder for people on the other side. It’s a balancing act.

So I’m all for finding a way – sustainably. You can’t give people something and then take it away.

Uprise RI: So the answer is ‘No’ as of right now.

Tobon: I’m not saying ‘No.’ I have to look at the numbers. Right now it doesn’t look sustainable.

Uprise RI: So if it’s not sustainable, it’s not going to happen. And we cannot define sustainable…

Tobon: It’s tough because the ARPA money isn’t…

Uprise RI: This isn’t about ARPA. This idea was around before ARPA was a thing.

Tobon: I understand. But the ARPA money is to create a downpayment on a bridge towards something and hopefully be able to find a way to keep it. So the thing is that we have to look at that financial note and see.

I know there’s some exploration right now of a pilot program. There’s conversation about that.

Uprise RI: All right. Thank you for your time.

*Former Representative Kenneth Marshall was the vice-chair of the House Finance Committee under former Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello. According to Katherine Gregg at the Providence Journal, Marshall failed to report over $11,000 in campaign donations and used his campaign account to pay for a personal trip to a resort in Florida. Representative Marshall’s last vote as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives was against the Reproductive Privacy Act, which ensured abortion rights in Rhode Island.

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