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REBOOT: Providence Train Station

Schematic for a redesigned Providence Train Station area.

Click image to enlarge

REBOOT is an occasional series of posts on GC:PVD where we identify areas of the city that display poor urbanism and propose ways to improve them. Our interventions may be simple and quite easily realized, or they may at times be grand and possibly take years or decades to complete. Either way, we hope they generate interest and discussion.

Oh Providence Station… why are you such a dump?

Of course the short answer to that is that we have not taken care of it. But this post is not about the sad condition of the station, it is about the fact that the station was a mistake to begin with.

Of course we used to have the stunning Union Station which is now the home of the Rhode Island Foundation and other offices. The river and railroad relocation projects resulted in the tracks leaving Union Station behind and a new station being built.

When Providence Station was opened in 1986 we were deep in the heart of the automobile age. Gas supplies were cheap and seemingly inexhaustible, Amtrak was kind of a quaint hobby that we north-easterners insisted on keeping in service, and the MBTA did not reach Providence. This resulted in a station that is too small for our post-$4/gallon gasoline world. A station that is inconveniently located away from the city’s major employment centers (and with the removal of Route 195, the city’s employment centers are poised to move further from the train station).

Were it maintained properly, the station is certainly handsome. The clock tower nicely pierces the skyline, the low slung dome is handsome and adds a modern bent to the collection of domes we have in our fair city, the interior is attractive. However, the interior is not spacious enough for the passengers we have utilizing existing MBTA and Amtrak services, and the station will become more crowded as MBTA services expand southward and if a Blackstone Valley commuter service is ever instituted. And as the price of gas continues its generally upward trend, more and more people will turn to the trains.

Let’s not waste time blaming the planners from the 80′s for their shortsightedness on the station’s design, let’s instead consider what we can do to modify it for a world that is very different from 1986.

Bret wrote a post a couple years ago in which he cited me as referring to the station as a hundred-year mistake. He went on to highlight some of the short comings of Capital Center area as a neighborhood, and suggest some solutions. We were to write a Part II to that post and never got around to it, this is that Part II I suppose.

We’re pretty good at moving things actually…

Interior of Providence Train Station

Interior of Providence Station. Photo (cc) The West End

The station is too small, there are not enough seats for waiting passengers, there are not enough toilets in the mens room (I assume the ladies is the same), the food service options are underwhelming and limited, there is not retail to speak of to cater to commuters, there are a limited number of ticket booths (compounded by the fact that Amtrak bullied the MBTA out of the ticket windows).

So let’s expand the station. We could expand it to the southeast, toward the Avalon apartments, but I have other plans for that space. I propose expanding it to the northwest, toward the State House, and we do this by moving Gaspee Street.

This is an idea that came out of the Downcity Charrettes a few years back, and may have come from before then even. Looking at the State House from the sky, Gaspee and Francis Streets wrap around either side, but are not symmetrical. If you were to move Gaspee Street closer to the State House to make it mirror Francis Street, now you have a whole bunch of land between Gaspee and the train tracks.

View Larger Map

Slide Gaspee Street over and you create room for a northwestward extension of the train station, and developable parcels along the east side of Gaspee Street toward Smith Street.

Now that we’ve moved the street, we can put all the service oriented things that the station is missing (or are not up to snuff) in the new addition to the station. An expanded cafe, a full service restaurant, a dry-cleaner, a bike repair shop for people who are biking to the station, move the newsstand/gift shop, a bank, and build expanded restrooms.

Everything that was in the old station clear it out. Now there is room for much more passenger seating and in addition to the Amtrak ticket windows, we can build a combined MBTA/RIPTA ticket window/information booth. The area that was sad seating for Cafe La France, is now able to be opened to Station Park.

Local connections

Downtown Transit Mall MAX boarding with bike

Downtown Transit Mall in Portland Oregon. Photo (cc) TriMet

We moved the station further away from the Financial District and now we’re getting ready to try to trigger some massive job creation south of the Financial District, further still from the train station, and even further than that is the jobs district around the Hospitals. Therefore we need good local transportation.

In order to connect buses and eventually streetcars directly to the train station, with through service to points north, Exchange Street should be extended along the west side of the station (between it and the “AmEx” Building) to Gaspee Street. The extended street would be transit only.

With the current number of buses we have serving the station area, we could get close to 6 minute headways between the station and Kennedy Plaza. As we expand services in the future, bring a streetcar to the station, etc., we should be able to realize better than 5 minute headways which become virtually on-demand. In other words, you leave a train at the station, come up the stairs, and a some form of transport should be there in moments to take you to Kennedy Plaza, without you having to consult a schedule.

The station now opens up towards Station Park (I’ve renamed it Capitol Commons), with buses and streetcars arriving frequently. Crosswalks across the transitway lead to platforms for Kennedy Plaza-bound service and beyond that pathways bring you to the mall and Waterplace.

Meet me at Station Square

The station’s inside waiting area can also spill out the south side onto the newly redesigned Station Square. Station Square will be where you wait for your train in warm weather months as there will be boarding announcements and seating and coffee carts and maybe someone selling cupcakes or whoopie pies or gin & tonics or something. The retail spaces across the street at the Avalon Building need some help, but could well frame the southeast side of the square.

Station Square can also be the place where we create expanded bike parking facilities at the station. There would also be space for taxis to queue for passengers coming out of the station.

But where shall I park?

People, gas is pushing $4/gallon! You want to park? OK, fine. The state has received funding to fix deficiencies in the parking garage (or study fixing them). Currently the ramps to the garage slice through where I’d like Station Square to be, the exit ramp also would conflict with the Exchange Street transitway. So, I suggest we move the ramps to the side of the garage. Development on the remaining Capital Cove parcels could house more parking for the station if needed.

What’s the hold up? Let’s do this!

Well, as always, the holdup is money. I’m sure you’ve all noticed we’re broke, and the stimulus money from the Feds is drying up too. That said this is not the most crazy expensive Reboot I’ve proposed.

All the land involved is the government’s; city, state, or federal through Amtrak, so there are no expensive takings. Getting those three branches of government to work together could be tiresome. Really, besides money, the big problem is Amtrak. They are unwilling to consider allowing the Exchange Street Transitway to be built over their underground tracks.

One would assume that we could get our Congressional delegation to make them relent, but what is the point right now if we have no money to move any plans forward?

Your thoughts?


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32 Responses to REBOOT: Providence Train Station

  1. Peter Brassard June 8, 2011 at 1:39 am #

    Great post! Besides the station and its surroundings, it would be worth reserving an expanded right-of-way for the tracks below.

    Another shortsighted aspect of the 1980s design is that only two platforms for four tracks were built, plus the fifth track for freight. With Gaspee Street shifted toward the statehouse, a third platform could be added next to the fifth track and a sixth track could be added adjacent to a new third platform.

    An easement for rail improvements could be designated for the new Gaspee Street development parcels below the grade of the street. It doesn\’t matter if the improvements aren\’t built for decades. What\’s critical is to plan for future expansion.

    As a reference New Haven and Stamford have greater platform capacity and both cities are smaller than Providence. The difference is that those cities have a highly developed commuter rail system, besides Amtrak.

    Providence\’s current tracks and platforms may be able to handle expanded South County commuter rail, even as far as Westerly, but when a Blackstone Valley line is added, the station\’s capacity could peak.

  2. Tony P June 8, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    Excellent idea! I would hope you forwarded this to the city and state officials because they need to know about this.

  3. Matt Moritz June 8, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    My only thoughts to the negative are where would the taxi-stand get relocated, and this proposal seems to favor reduced RIPTA service directly to Providence Place, some of which is headed to the station. Otherwise, as an ex-MBTA commuter and sometime Amtrak user, all of these station improvements would be quite welcome.

  4. Andrew June 8, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    I’m not sure I see the logic in moving a road to expand the station toward the capital seems onerous (even though you’re right, Providence is great a moving infrastructure, especially when it comes to the train station). Why not just expand the station towards downtown in the space you’ve labeled “Station Square?” In effect, you’d be “moving” the building just a little closer to downtown by removing some psychological distance between the pedestrian and the station.

  5. Brendan June 8, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    Great ideas, thanks. Amtrak’s attitude towards property development and infrastructure improvement has likely never been better than it is right now. Stimulus funding and HSIPR federal funds notwithstanding, the company is making serious efforts to improve their properties. Chicago Union Station (owned by Amtrak) is beginning to undergo some desperately needed expansion and renovation in its passenger concourse. Most importantly, the building renovations in Chicago, and in many other Amtrak-owned facilities across the country, are being done with cash that Amtrak has on hand, not with stimulus funds.

  6. Coryndon June 8, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    I like all of this.

    One thought did you consider extending the station along the tracks? This would cover the remainder of the exposed platforms and could serve as an alternative direction for station expansion or location for the square. This could activate the strange triangular dead area that is between the river and the state house.

  7. Jeff June 8, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    Hmm, sounds good but so do some of the alternatives proposed in the comments. I have an idea of inexpensive, continuous transport from the station to Kennedy Plaza – an aerial tramway. This is not unprecedented, other cities have done it. It could run from the station, across park next to the Amex building, over the basin at Waterplace, between 2 of the old Union Station buildings and right into Kennedy Plaza. The gondolas could come every few seconds and hold 5-15 people, depending on the design.

  8. dan June 8, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    Realigning Gaspee St would take away the open space on the State House property and probably require cutting down mature trees in the new ROW. Given the ruckus that the Weybosset St realignment caused why would anything be proposed that would reduce green space. Would also like to see a larger map showing how Gaspee would tie back into Smith.

    Take Coryndon’s idea and expand it to allow selling the air rights (from the station to Smith) above the tracks to a developer. You could achieve retail along Gaspee and cover the tracks at the same time. I would not be surprised if that isn’t already an option.

  9. Jef Nickerson June 8, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    Great comments. Here’s my reasoning for some of the ideas, though I’m not opposed to the suggestions.

    The trees on the realignment of Gaspee. I would want to transplant as many of the trees as possible, some are quite large and would be prohibitively expensive, but may could be moved. I would place them in the northward extension of Station Park/Capitol Common. That section of the park, which is not over the train tracks, I would like to see heavily treed like Burnside is now.

    Ideally, the Assembly member parking next to the State House should be moved or put underground. That would allow for an expansion of greenspace around the State House. A garage at the lot next to the Dept. of Transportation (at the corner of Smith and State) would be ideal.

    Extending the station toward the State House and moving Gaspee Street allows for the transitway on the Exchange Street extension to be longer, maximizing the space for bus and streetcar platforms.

    An extension of the station over the tracks would be doable for sure. However, I think that back office functions currently occupy that section of the existing station, so all that would have to be removed, not insurmountable when you’re talking about reconfiguring much of the station, but an added expense and I’m not sure how the station would flow from it’s existing footprint out in that direction, plus the expense of building over the tracks.

    I go back and forth on extending the station toward downtown into what I’ve proposed as Station Square. On the one hand, I like having the open space outside the station, so you’re not just stepping out of the station onto the street. But, I can also envision a nice glass winter garden type structure there.

    The taxi stand would be on Finance Way (which I would like to rename, what a terrible name) on the edge of Station Square. There should also be room for taxis to stand on the Gaspee side.

    For mall RIPTA service, I don’t think it is too much of a burden to ask people to stroll across Station Park/Capitol Common to reach the buses. But, I’m also thinking, and I did not put this in the post, because it was getting too long, and I hadn’t thought it through completely yet, that Francis Street along the State House, should be one way. It would potentially take some of the chaos out of the Francis / Gaspee / Hayes intersection and make it safer for pedestrians.

    If that would the case, then I would see the Smith Street buses (56/57) using Hayes to Park to Smith, which would allow for those buses to have stops near the Cheesecake Factory.

    And on the tracks at the station, yes, we need to think about a 6th track and another platform. I’m not terribly familiar with their configuration and potential for expansion, but I thnk I can see in my minds eye that it is doable, and needed.

  10. Jef Nickerson June 8, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    Also, on the mall RIPTA, we need more frequent service of some kind, be it bus or streetcar to the Valley Promenade area (the 26 runs out there now). If we can really intensify jobs in that area in the coming decades, then a direct local route from the train station to that area is a must. So that route, would also travel along Hayes past the mall, then under the mall and highway. People from points west could have access from the back of the mall to those buses.

    And on the Francis / Gaspee / Hayes intersection, I was thinking of some sort of roundabout system there, some traffic island to give pedestrians a refuge and make the traffic less weave-y. But that was getting off the topic of the station and would have had me looking at maps and drawing stuff for far too long, so I left it out, for now.

  11. Andy June 8, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    I’d like to see the existing underground Amtrak platform be extended toward the mall with stairs, escalator, elevator surfacing either at Francis Street and Finance Way and/or at Francis Street mall side within the small plaza next to ‘Joe’s American.’

    Would provide a physical as well as a psychological direct connection to the mall, G-Tech Center and further Downtown and Promenade areas. Walking through Station Park (“Capital Commons”- which could also use some landscaping in addition to a renaming) is quite bleak and often treacherous in the winter months.

    I envision this something like the tunnel connectors in Times Square NYC and the Orange Line/Park Street connector tunnel in Boston. Perhaps add some retail vendors down there if it were a climate controlled environment.

  12. Andy June 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    …. Otherwise, a simple access point near Francis Street to the Station and platform would be an inexpensive and great urban addition.

  13. Jef Nickerson June 8, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    My understanding, and this is third hand information, and I was in elementary school when these conversations allegedly took place, is that the original plan for Capital Center had an underground connection from the train station to the mall. Interests in Massachusetts such as the Emerald Square and other mall owners cried foul and Massachusetts used MBTA service as a tool to get Providence to abandon that plan. The mall owners in Mass. didn’t want people in Mass. riding the train straight into Providence Place.

    I think we could probably move beyond that now. But, I can also envision the specter of “security concerns” getting in the way of such a connection now.

  14. Andy June 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    Jef, to clarify, and perhaps you are agreeing, that I’m only considering a pedestrian connection from the station platform to near about the Mall/G-Tech area. Though a short distance, would add a significant urban portal.

    Also, I too agree that something of this nature would be likely now that MBTA is running more frequent stops and to further points south- they would be remiss to loose that income for a minor stairwell only to benefit their service.

    Its too bad that we’d have to even consider such an obstacle. Whereas, if we want Providence to be a true urban landscape, the kinds of infrastructure you and other propose would seem to seek less hurdles in other cities. Often times I feel as though we still have not broken from the suburban minded aesthetic and concourse that was implemented some decades ago in Providence.

    ### End Rant

  15. barry June 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    A lot of excellent points! But I have a concern not yet addressed: the fare structure for train-station – downtown connecting bus service. RIPTA’s fare policy is now $2/ride that short as well as ride from there to Newport. $2/ride deters use , yet the jeweltry district sites are a bit far to walk for employment, and even K Plaza a bit far to walk with luggage, especially with a difficult memorial Blvd crossing.

    Providence once supported a free downtown area shuttle, though due to taxi owner pressure, it didn’t stop at the station. RIPTA had a “short zone” in the downtown area for all its bus lines, which was 50 cents when the base fare was $1.25 about a decade ago. The “trolleys” were also 50 cents then. Now they are $2, a problem not just for station redevelopment but possible for jewerly district redevelopment also.
    I keep recommending bringing back the “short zone.”

  16. Jef Nickerson June 8, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    Barry, I agree, RIPTA’s statewide fare system needs looking at.

    Andy, yes, that was what I was thinking. Though there are two platforms, so there would need to be two portals (or a mezzanine) and the portals would need some sort of identification as far as which train arrives where at the mall end.

  17. Andy June 8, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    Yes, like a bridge:

    W 168th 1 Line Stop NYC: http://gothamist.com/attachments/jen/2009_08_w181a.jpg

    DC Metro, Dupont Circle:
    http://farm1.static.flickr.com/148/429883744_071415a810.jpg

  18. Peter Brassard June 8, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    There should be no issue with stairs near the mall to the platforms and security. It’s not as if there’s a guard checking your ticket and ID when you go down the platform from the station now, but I suppose that could change. They’d be adding a remote means of egress, which would make the platforms safer.

  19. Dave Westcott June 9, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    While I LOVE the idea of expanding the train station, we have to be careful about extending it into the State House Lawn. That lawn is a State Park and part of an historic site (the State House) which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Federal regulations prohibt the use of parkland and historic properties for highway and transit projects unless there are no other “prudent and feasible” alternatives. Even then, mitigation is usually necessary. When the station was built, some parkland had to be taken. The “lawn” to the west of the station is really a deck built over the tracks then loamed and seeded to replace park property lost to the station project. Expansion northward on the State House lawn would adversely affect an historic property and expansion to the north or west would impact parkland. Instead, we should consider going east (over the tracks) or south into the square. We clearly need more space, but we also need to expand wisely.

  20. mental757 June 10, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    There was indeed plans to have vertical passenger access to/from the mall and the platforms, but I can’t speak to the actual reasons why it was abandoned. If I owned the mall, I dig up those plans and make it happen now though. This could also offer an alternative to the parking “shortage” at the station itself.

  21. Jef Nickerson June 10, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Dave I hear what you’re saying about the State House lawn being an historic place, but somehow, a fifth to a quarter of it is currently surface parking. Not terribly historic in my opinion.

  22. Peter Brassard June 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    The State House parking lots roughly equal 77,500 square feet or 1.8 acres. If the service yard for the boiler building is added it’s roughly 83,000 square feet or 1.9 acres.

  23. RunawayJim June 13, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    I have to wonder how efficient that boiler building is in its current location. I would think it could be moved closer, like right on the edge of the parking lots.

  24. Andrew I June 24, 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    To achieve continuous transport between the train station and Kennedy Plaza, route the #99 (really, the streetcar line that replaces the #99) via Smith to Gaspee and then to KP via the Exchange Transitway.

    Since this is dreamworld, I would add a futuristic trestle to carry the streetcars at grade from Gaspee Street over the train tracks, the river, Smith Street and Mill Street onto North Main where it climbs the hill. Your ride on the #99 just got 5 minutes faster!

  25. Jason September 14, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    I have to say, I disagree with most of your assessment of how the Providence train station could be improved. Having used the station to commute to Boston daily for many years, I can tell you what needs to be improved and what doesn’t from the perspective of the traveller. First, the station needs better access for dropping off and picking up passengers. The current situation is a daily mess of epic moving and parking violations by drivers of cars, busses and taxis that clog the streets. I support solving this problem which I concede will require some additional land use. However, consuming the capital grounds for this purpose would be a mistake. The grounds, on their own right, are among the best green public spaces in the city. Do we really need to convert them into more useless condos? On the other hand, the station’s small size is also it’s strength. I can’t think of another train station where you can taste fresh air and look upon a beautiful green landscape in so few steps form the platform (Or have such a beautiful place to wait for a train or an arriving passenger). The last thing you want when you get off the train is to have to navigate through more hallways and useless retail space before exiting.

    Second, I’d like to posit that if anything needs fixing at the station apart from access, then it must be the platforms themselves. They are a dark, polluted, noisy, poorly signed mess.

    Sorry, but I just don’t see how more retail or “development parcels” would improve the passenger experience or the impression that we make on visitors.

  26. mental757 September 15, 2011 at 8:28 am #

    Having had a hour of extra time at the station last Thursday afternoon due to a late train, I must agree with Jason. I think the station complex itself isn’t as bad as I used to feel (maybe I’m just settling at this point, who knows).

    1) The plaform for tracks 1 & 2 got a decent upgrade with some lighting and limited Amtrak signage and we all cheered the repair of the escalators, but the platform for tracks 3 & 4 is horrrendous. Temporary lighting, no signs, terrible. This platform will eventually be used much more with the upcoming commuter rail service expansion to the south. A broad lighting and signage upgrade and standardization is needed.

    2) The clock. ’nuff said…

    3) The crumbling corners of the stone block masony around the station is in obvious need of repair.

    4) The parking garage and plaza that is on the south side of has been discussed here before.

    5) Landscaping and clean-up in general.

    6) The Solari (I think thats what it is called) still hasn’t been programmed with “TF Green Airport.” The board lists the train number, time, but the “TO” column is empty = embarrassing. The service only started last December!

    7) A better integration for RIPTA buses and future streetcar service would be the next “phase” in my opinion. A couple more signs along the way between KP for people who aren’t familiar couldn’t hurt either. Looks like a few have been added in recent years, but there should be one, in each direction, at each intersection.

    I say start with those and the place would be much better than what we have now. Just my personal 2 cents…

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