Community Weighs in on New Transit Plan for Providence

RIDOT’s multi-hub is discarded; Dorrance Street plan garners mixed opinions at public meetings

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The widely unpopular multi-hub bus proposal that has dominated much of the conversation surrounding public transit in Providence for the past two years is now off the table. The plan would have used the $35 million bond meant to improve transit in the state to break up the current Kennedy Plaza hub.

First introduced by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) in 2016, the plan was supported and advocated for by some downtown property owners but largely met with criticism, especially from those who use public transit. After its poor reception, the proposal was not discussed again until April 2020.

“It almost seems as though with the pandemic taking up all of our time, they thought they could move forward with this project – that we weren’t gonna show up, we weren’t gonna do anything, because we’re all quarantined or staying home,” says Dwayne Keys, chairperson of the South Providence Neighborhood Association.

Keys and SPNA were joined by other organizations, including Grow Smart RI, to file a Title VI Civil Rights complaint last year against the plan, citing its lack of consideration for BIPOC (Black, brown and people of color) communities, lower-income individuals, and other historically marginalized groups who make up the majority of transit users who would be harmed by the plan.

Still, spending the bond on a multi-hub plan remained an option for a year and a half before it was officially dropped late February of this year. In its place is a new plan to move the current hub from Kennedy Plaza to Dorrance Street, creating the Innovation District Bus Transit Center.

Opinions on this plan are mixed. Keys and SPNA, along with the Kennedy Plaza Resiliency Coalition, recently released a statement advocating for a robust public participation process that allows historically underrepresented groups to offer feedback on any
significant changes to public transit, including the proposed Dorrance Street plan.

Other groups have expressed their support, including Grow Smart RI. “We think it addresses the concerns of riders and it’s also an investment in the urban fabric of downtown Providence because it’s not just a single-level transit hub; it’s going to include other mixed-use elements,” says John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI.

At press time, this plan is largely conceptual and Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) is seeking community feedback through public meetings, the first of which was held on February 24.

During the meeting, representatives from RIPTA emphasized that the bus system has outgrown Kennedy Plaza and will need to move regardless, though opponents like Keys are not convinced. “How does this benefit riders?” he asked at the meeting. “Show me the traffic feasibility study that shows this is so much better.”

Other attendees expressed a variety of opinions, but a few shared sentiments surfaced. The first was a distrust of RIDOT, which historically has prioritized cars over transit and has been responsible for value-engineering out essential benefits of transit improvements. One recent example of this was the Pawtucket-Central Falls Transit Center, which is only now seeing those improvements due to efforts from RIPTA and the community.

The second was a desire to limit parking as much as possible at the station. Currently, it includes a relatively large lot, even though the hub’s central purpose is improving public transit.

The third strand of the discussion pertained to the related issue of accessibility. Despite the meeting’s focus on the new transit hub plan, most riders expressed more interest in seeing improvements in accessibility throughout the state. As it stands, public transit is slow and limited in Rhode Island compared to transportation via private cars, and based on input from the February meeting, improved mobility for users throughout the state seems more desirable than a new hub.

Keys echoed this, putting forth that the best possible option is to keep Kennedy Plaza as is and focus transit bond money on promoting greater accessibility and mobility throughout the state. He also expressed concerns about whether the Dorrance Street location would have adequate space, fearing the hub could ultimately be split up late in the process if not.

Flaherty felt that in the wake of tension surrounding the threat of the bus hub being dismantled for the benefit of stakeholders who don’t use the transit system, “it’s hard to divorce yourself from that narrative even if the alternative that’s on that table actually is a better scenario for the transit rider and the transit experience,” he said at the meeting.

In its conceptual stage, the Dorrance Street hub has potential to be a more popular alternative to the multi-hub plan, but continued public input is key in ensuring bus riders and those most impacted by the changes are represented.

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