Barry Schiller, a retired Rhode Island College math professor, is a long-time member of the State Planning Council’s Transportation Advisory Committee. He also was on the RIPTA Board of Directors 1995-1999.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that prospects for building the proposed College Hill – Hospitals/South Providence streetcar, a $127 million project, are fading.
RIPTA itself has clearly stated they won’t fund the project out of their existing revenue stream, already inadequate for maintaining its bus system. Their initial proposal for the next four year TIP (Transportation Improvement Program) being developed did suggest $2.5 million in FY2013 for the streetcar’s next phase of preliminary engineering an design. This is only about 1/3 the cost, the rest to be paid for by someone else. But since expected capital funds were inadequate for their original plan, RIPTA then modified this proposal to allocate only $1.5 million on streetcar design spread out later over 2014 and 2015. RIPTA understandably does not want to spend any more money on this unless the political process comes up with a funding source to design, build, and operate the streetcar. Indeed it seems there must be a financial plan to do this to get any more Federal dollars for this project. But the city of Providence, its big institutions, local property owners, and the state and Federal governments are all under financial stress and I see little prospect that any of them will step up to pay for the streetcar in any big way.
My take on the streetcar at last week’s RIPTA Board meeting is that RIPTA leaders expect to conclude the corridor study by selecting the streetcar as the locally preferred alternative, but then it will likely just sit there until there is a funding mechanism. Further diminishing its prospects is the resignation of Thomas Deller, as Chair of the RIPTA Board of Directors, which removes the foremost streetcar advocate from a position of leadership at RIPTA.
The streetcar’s route for the most part is duplicated by existing Route 42 – 1 Hope-Eddy bus service, so the project is more about economic development than serving transit needs. Thus it should be noted the core corridor study has released an economic analysis. It did surprise me how much vacant or underutilized land is available for redevelopment along its route, and the study estimates that based on experience elsewhere, modified by Rhode Island conditions, the streetcar will eventually generate an additional 3.6 million square feet of economic development and 5,750 additional jobs. The projected rate of return on investment is 9 to 1, which sounds good but is far below the 34 to 1 ratio in Portland OR or even 29 to 1 in Kenosha, 19 to 1 in Memphis. There is no mention of Buffalo NY where a Wall St Journal column about its difficulties noted that a streetcar project there totally failed to help its economy.
My conclusion is that if there is anyone seriously advocating for implementing this project anytime soon, they have a lot of work to do.