Greater City Providence

Streetcars: The train station is out, but that’s OK

Providence Core Connector
Providence Streetcar proposed between College Hill and Prairie Avenue

The latest Core Connector (Streetcar) study document can be found here. [.pdf]

The main question that has been at issue with the Core Connector alignment is how to serve both the train station and College Hill at the northern end while maintain frequent service between those points and the Hospital District at the southern. If northbound trains split with every other one going to the train station or the Hill, then that would degrade the service frequency to each location.

Several options were explored, one would have had a shuttle running between the train station and Kennedy Plaza where passengers would be able to connect to the main line streetcars heading to College Hill and the Hospitals. That would be a major investments to carry passengers the 4 blocks between the two and would not address the fact that passengers are forced to make another connection along their trip.

Another option was to send the streetcars to the train station but not College Hill. College Hill would be served by other conventional bus services and passengers would make a connection at Kennedy Plaza to the streetcar. The issue here is that the expected passenger load to and from the train station will be confined to rush hours.

There are trains serving the station throughout the day, but mainly it will be commuters. College Hill will have commuters but will also have Brown and RISD students, staff, and faculty traveling downtown and the Jewelry and Hospital Districts. Economic development in the Jewelry District will likely for the near future be tied to academia, especially Brown. A direct connection to College Hill will serve more people more often.

Core Connector
Providence Streetcar proposal serving both the Train Station and College Hill

Another option would be to run an enhanced bus line instead of a streetcar and have the northern end like a snake, looping up to the train station then back down to the East Side Tunnel and up to College Hill. This option adds substantial trip time for passengers who are not heading to the train station but instead are looking to get from/to College Hill and the Jewelry/Hospital Districts. As outlined above, a great deal of the traffic will be between those points and most train station service will be at rush hour.

It also adds a lot of linear feet to the routing, which is why it is not a streetcar, adding that much track would simply be too expensive.

This circuitous route would inconvenience the majority of the passengers throughout most of the day while going out of the way to serve a destination with very few passengers (except at the rush).

So, the option we’re looking at is running from College Hill, through Downcity to the Jewelry District, ending up in the Hospital District either on Eddy Street or perhaps swinging west through the Hospital District to Prairie Street. The train station would be served by enhancements to existing buses servicing the train station as well as improvements to the streetscape allowing people to more easily walk from the station to Kennedy Plaza. Technologies such as next bus signage would allow people to know when a Kennedy Plaza bound bus was on the way allowing them to decide if they wait for it, or make the quick walk to the Plaza.

When I laid out my ideas for a frequent service network, some of the connection to the train station issues were addressed. Though I proposed connecting the streetcar direct to the train station, I agree, that for now, that is not going to work.

Instead, as part of the funds we’ve received to repair the train station, we should open up Exchange Street along the Station Park side of the station as a transitway. This will help us create a transit hub at the station and provide very frequent service to the station with a number of buses serving it. We also talked about this some in the Providence Station REBOOT post.

Currently, 4 bus routes directly serve the train station on the Gaspee Street side. Opening the transitway allows those buses to serve the station directly then throughroute direct to Kennedy Plaza without going to Francis, then Memorial, then Exchange. To those buses, we could add the current Gold Line trolley which now terminates at Kennedy Plaza, extend that line north to end at the train station. Also, the 11/99 Rapid Bus line could be diverted via Randall Street to Charles then Smith then Gaspee, then the transitway. The 11/99 is designed to provide frequent service.

Among those 6 lines, we’d have service between the train station and Kennedy Plaza likely at least every 5 minutes (I haven’t done the math, but the 11/99 should have headways around 10-12 minutes, then you add in the other 5 lines…).

Ideally, the train station will someday be directly connected to a streetcar line. A northern extension through the train station transitway is a no-brainer. For now, the best way to serve the most people and generate the most economic activity from the project, and keep the costs manageable, is to leave out the station and allow the connections to be made on foot and with other modes.

The costs we’re looking at here is $120 million one time cost for infrastructure, rails, wires, stations, trains… Then, $3.6 million per year to operate and maintain the line and service the costs of the debt created for the original infrastructure.

Funding will come from a combination of federal matches, state bonds, further federal programs such as TIGER and TIGGER (assuming they get funded by the current or future Congresses), and a tax assessment in the areas served by the Core Connector.

As reported by the ProJo:

Fares would be $1. For much of its operating money, however, the system would depend on a new tax district along the route, with assessments levied on benefiting property owners, 95 cents per $1,000 in assessed valuation within one-eighth of a mile of the route, and 55 cents per $1,000 within a quarter of a mile.

Service is proposed to be running every 10 minutes from 7am to 8pm Monday through Saturday. Service with 15 minute headways would run earlier and later and on Sundays. There would be service extended from 10pm to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

The study document [.pdf] has more information about ridership projections, sample travel times, and development impact.

If all goes to plan, the time frame for construction to begin is 2014-2015.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • I agree that they need to keep those fares low, but it seems odd now that buses running similar distance will charge riders twice what the streetcar will. Perhaps RIPTA will be able to move to some kind of variable fare model for longer bus routes (this is probably a question for a different post)?

  • I should probably write something about fares at some point as a place for us to have an actual discussion devoted to the topic (it always comes up in any transit related post). I will say, introducing a new fare of $1 means that RIPTA now has two fares running in its system so there should not be too much argument about say a high distance based fare or a higher express bus fare.

    Also, introducing a dollar fare for this service means RIPTA could look at other services that should maybe get that fare, the existing trolley buses for example. At one point, they were cheaper than the buses then they were raised to the same price as the state-wide fare during one of the annual budget crises.

    Now I’m Googling things to make examples, I think I just need to do a post about fares.

  • The pedestrian/bike bridge over 95 midway between point and eddy streets should be expanded to carry the streetcar line!

  • One problem I see with the tax plan is that a lot of the “tax area” is going to be hospital and schools. I assume this is already taken into account, but unless they all decide to increase their “in lieu of tax” gifts, and they would, at least at first, be the biggest beneficiaries.

    Understanding that getting the infrastructure in place will help everyone, I’m curious how this will be sold to for profit businesses.

  • It seems to me the big story is the increase in estimated capital cost, previously $86 million, now $126 million. There are a lot of other transit ideas out there also competing for limited funds – for example commuter rail stops in Pawtucket, Cranston, extensions to Kingston, maybe even to Woonsocket, all of which provide basically new transit service, while the streetcar duplicates the existing RIPTA Route 42-1 line which also runs from Thayer St, thru the tunnel, to Kennedy Plaza and the to the Hospital district, and beyond, about every 20 minutes. In addition, a representative from Cranston attending the briefing indicated interest in rapid-bus service to that city. And though I agree with Jef that transit fares are worth another post, please note that at the briefing the RIPTA spokesperson indicated that $1 is just the “average fare” anticipated, so don’t assume it means that for everybody.

  • Indeed there is no lack of worthy transit projects in our state, but without a strong transit system in the core (Providence) it is useless to build stations in Pawtucket and Cranston and Woonsocket and elsewhere (indeed at T.F. Green and Wickford Junction). If people arrive in Providence and all they find is buses that only run every 20 minutes, then no one will ever use those train stations outside Providence.

    As for Rapid Bus to Cranston, yes, bring it on. The improvements that go with a Rapid Bus line (as RIPTA is proposing them) should not prohibit us to also have a streetcar line in downtown.

    Indeed when State Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt suggested that we should divert the streetcar money (which doesn’t actually exist yet) to building the Blackstone Valley Commuter Rail line my response was, I want it all!

    As I’ve said a million times, we found money for the Iway and the Pawtucket River Bridge and the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Orms Street Bridge and the Union Avenue Bridge… when it comes to cars, we find the money. There’s no reason we can’t figure out a way to fund more than one non-automobile transportation project.

  • I believe that the issue with the transitway is Amtrak. They own the tunnel under the station. I remember hearing that they would make it very difficult to work above that tunnel unless they transferred ownership to the State or City, which doesn’t seem likely.. Either way, it’s a great idea and really ought to happen.

  • If Thayer gets streetcars, will RIPTA eliminate the East Side trolley that serves the rest of College Hill and Fox Point – given that Thayer will now be served by buses AND trolleys AND streetcars ?
    The streetcars from KP to Thayer simply seem redundant since the leg is already very well served. I know a lot of other parts of the state would love to be served this generously.

  • Tony, I don’t know who you’re talking to and how you can tell that RIPTA wants an all bus fleet. The people I talk to at RIPTA and in the Planning Department are all about doing whatever they can to make this happen. The big problem as always is money, and at this point, the biggest problem is not the dearth of money at the state/local level but the gridlock at the Federal level.

  • ada, I believe when/if this gets closer to reality, RIPTA will be assessing all services currently in the Core Connector area and figuring the best ways to make other services integrate well with the Core Connector. That will invariably mean some routes get cut and some routes get moved.

    I think the best thing to do with the green line trolley is to somehow send it to Wickenden before crossing the river or using South Water/South Main as its connection to Wickenden.

    As for the generosity of service, I don’t know any other part of the state (outside the city) that has as many jobs, as dense a population, as many people open to using transit, as many people living car free… to support anything close to the level of service that goes through the tunnel currently. And, I don’t think the level of service going through the tunnel now is enough.

  • Tom, it is true that Amtrak is the big sticking point at the station. For now, there has been no movement from state or local officials to tackle that problem because it has seemed too much work for too little reward and too many other things were on the players’ agendas. Now, as we are getting serious about the Core Connector, wanting to have a hub at the station, and greatly increasing non-Amtrak service (i.e. the T) to the station, that fight with them is about due to happen. We’ll need people at RIPTA, the Mayor, the RIDOT Director, our Congressional Delegation, and others to team up and make Amtrak bend to our will.

    Or the Republicans in Congress will just defund Amtrak and they’ll go away.

  • Since the train station is not part of the streetcar alignment, besides locating a transitway next to the train station for existing bus routes, a substantial high canopy could be installed over the sidewalk between Kennedy Plaza and the station. It could become an iconic sculptural feature within the city’s landscape that celebrates the pedestrian link between the cities two major transportation hubs effectively linking them. It could fly over crosswalks and streets as a unified form. Practically it would provide an open pedestrian weather refuge and would eliminate or drastically reduce the snow removal problem from the sidewalk between the two hubs.

  • Some sort of arch/gateway element at Memorial and Exchange could send a message to drivers that that intersection is not a highway, helping to address in part the challenges of crossing there on foot.

    Personally, if I am walking between the train station and Kennedy Plaza, I go through Waterplace, the underpass to Union Station Plaza, and the tunnel to the Skating Center. That is slightly circuitous, but a nice walk and no streets to cross (except Finance Way). It is not ideal for someone in a wheelchair or someone with luggage or a stroller though.

  • I’m glad to see that the mainline option uses the existing tunnel infrastructure and omits the perennially-underused urban renewal nightmare that is the train station (and no, FRA-compliant commuter rail isn’t going to change that, not even the relatively well-run Providence Foundation proposal). Thayer Street is an all-day destination, without a strong peak; the urban wasteland around the station is the opposite.

    Is the streetcar going to run in mixed traffic away from the bus tunnel? If so, it’s a waste of money. If it has dedicated lanes nearly the entire way, it could work. But what I don’t understand is why RIPTA wants to charge a lower fare than on the buses. Why introduce this complexity into the system instead of just charging everyone the same fare?

  • Jef, let me encapsulate the Projo comments for you:

    “Blah blah blah cesspool of corruption blah blah blah I hate unions blah blah blah higher taxes blah blah blah shrouded racist comment blah blah blah this state sucks, I can’t wait to leave.”

    In other words, no different from the Projo comments on any other article.

  • Please tell me someone said, “last one out of Rhode Island, shut off the lights.” That one is my favorite.

  • How does the two-way streetcar on Washington between Kennedy Plaza and the East Side Transit Tunnel work? I like it a lot as it avoids having to go out of the way one block north as buses do now. But would that two-way be just for streetcar or would it also be for buses such as a single contraflow transit lane westbound (with eastbound in regular traffic) or would it be a two-lane two-way transitway?

  • The Vision for Kennedy Plaza is a separate planning group looking at Kennedy Plaza. That group and RIPTA talk to each other, but the Vision is not what the Core Connector is based on.

    I have some drawings which I can’t put my hands on at the moment of proposed track (very much preliminary). Washington between Kennedy Plaza and the tunnel would in some way remain open to private auto traffic (again, as of very preliminary planning which could change).

    Likely, there would be some sort of contraflow transit only lane on the Washington Place bridge, then Washington between Memorial and Dorrance may or may not be open for all traffic to move two-way, or also have a contraflow transit lane.

    It would seem a no brainer to also put buses in that contraflow lane rather than having them loop around Steeple Street like they do now. But planning has not gotten that far yet.

  • And when I say preliminary, I don’t think RIPTA/RIDOT has got to the point of doing any traffic studies to see how various scenarios would play out. Exclusive transitway may be on the table as an idea, but it needs to be seen if that would result in gridlock Downcity or what.

  • I was scratching my head “Or the Republicans in Congress will just defund Amtrak and they’ll go away.” because I read “defund” as “defend”.. Still kinda makes sense though. The only way repubs would defend Amtrak would be to block a streetcar!

  • Why in any remote bit of logic is to perfectly OK to leave a train station connection out of the streetcar plan?

    What kind of unified transit system is that???!!

    Let’s be sure the buses don’t connect anywhere with the trolley, too.

    Then everything will be perfect.

  • 1. The streetcar route looks like a giant “S”. A straighter route would serve people better and would make the route viable, especially if you plan to extend the route later. I would recommend that from the tunnel, the streetcar go only to the eastern edge of the bus plaza, then back to the river, then straight down Eddy St. through the newly-grown knowledge district.

    2. CCRI is near the southern end of the route, and students ride buses. Why not extend 2 blocks down to CCRI?

    3. For that matter, why put a southern terminus at Prairie Avenue in the middle of nowhere? That makes little sense. Why not stop it on Eddy Street right at Women and Infants Hospital, where people can sit in the streetcars (while it’s sleeting outside) waiting for the streetcar to make its run? Or, if you need the turnaround room, run the streetcar around the Women and Infants block to turn the car around.

    4. You do realize that this route is already served by the well-routed Hope Street /Eddy Street bus, and is it true that money comes out of existing bus routes to build this?

    5. What I really worry about, as an inventor, is that you’ll miss out on a far more productive above-street transit system not too far down the road.

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