Greater City Providence

U.S. Senate passes 2-year – $109 billion transportation bill

cpan senate highway bill

CSPAN screen capture via DC.Streetsblog

Yesterday, the United States Senate passed a two-year, $109 billion transportation bill on a bi-partisan vote of 74 to 22. The bill is set to move to the House of Representatives where House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been unable to muster support for a 5-year bill that everyone from transportation activists, to Republican Representatives in urban districts, and Sec. of Transportation Ray LaHood panned as a giant step backwards in transportation planning and funding.

While the House bill was widely panned, the Senate bill passed yesterday is finding broad support:

In a press release, Sen. Jack Reed explains what the Transportation Bill potentially means for Rhode Island, that is if the House passes it relatively intact (a big ‘if’ at this point), and it makes it to the President’s desk for signature. Reed states the bill will, “provide Rhode Island with $515 million for transportation enhancements, protect mass-transit, and streamline the review process so local projects can move faster while creating a new set of performance requirements aimed at preventing waste and making sure national goals are met.”


The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) is projected to receive an average of $227 million a year for highways, roads, and bridges. Last year the state received $226.9 million. Rhode Island will continue to receive more than $3 in federal funding for every dollar paid in federal gas taxes.

Reed also helped author a key portion of the bill that will provide Rhode Island over $30.5 million in federal mass transit funding in 2012, an increase of more than 10% ($3.7 million) over last year.

The Senator’s press release stated that the House bill, “would have reduced Rhode Island’s average annual highway investment by $46 million a year and devastated public transportation by nearly $7 million a year,” he referred to that as a “non-starter.”

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.


  • You know, RI really should ask for say $5 Billion to implement a streetcar system in Providence, not just a single line. They could also implement light rail that connects the city of Providence with points north and south.

    I don’t care if the distance are less than 10 miles. It would be a boon to the state.

  • Where did this nonsense of a minimum of 10-miles beyond downtown in each direction come from?

    The planning group for the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail didn’t use any such “standard” when they first designed their light-rail system. I’ve spoken with some of them. The original length of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail was about 6 ½ miles. The Weehawken-Hoboken-Jersey City corridor has roughly the same population and density as Central Falls-Pawtucket-Providence. From the Cranston line to downtown Pawtucket it’s about 8 miles.

    It took NJ Transit another six years to extend the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line to Bayonne to achieve 9 ½ miles and it was just two years ago that the line finally exceeded beyond the magic 10-mile mark and that was the entire length of the line|not two directions.

    The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail has been mostly responsible for the construction of over 100,000 dwelling units and millions of square feet of office space. New Jersey officials are well aware that only a small fraction of that development would have happened, if the light rail hadn’t been built.

    Norfolk’s “The Tide” light-rail line just opened and its only 7.4 miles in total length.

    Most of the new light rail systems have been built in the south and west and likely this is where the 10-mile number probably came from. It’s unlikely that many of those cities have anything close to the population density that the Providence area has.

    Did the City of Providence and RIPTA hire the wrong consultant?

  • Maybe I missed something. 10 mile line minimum? Wrong consultant? How does passage of this bill (as long as the House approves) effect the construction of the streetcar?

  • Sorry to be off topic but would this bill bring the street car idea back to life? I thought I read on here that the project was losing steam.

  • Sorry for the rant. My point was that if in 2006 the City and RIPTA got the right advice there might be rail on the city streets today or possibly under construction.

    Michael could be right that interest is waning for the streetcar. Downtown still needs a “circulator” running at minimum 10-minute intervals, even if it’s in the form of a bus or there’s little chance to reduce the number of cars and parking lots.

  • If the house approves the transportation bill, RIPTA would be getting $30.5 million for equipment or hard costs. There’s been a brief breather with the rise of gas prices, but anything could reignite the rise. It has been suggested that a major disruption involving Iran and the Gulf region that prices could shoot up to $8 a gallon.

    I regularly take #60 from Newport to the city. Not all the time, but often by the time the bus gets to Barrington or if it’s leaving from KP the seats are full and there are 4 to 6 people standing. The time of day doesn’t seem to matter. A friend who takes the #54 has experienced a similar situation with standees and these two routes aren’t the heaviest traveled.

    If gas prices spike RIPTA will be flooded with additional passengers. Since adding to frequency means increasing the budget to pay drivers, it might be prudent for RIPTA to consider buying some articulated buses for the heavier traveled routes to increase capacity.

  • Sorry to be off topic but would this bill bring the street car idea back to life? I thought I read on here that the project was losing steam.

    This bill (if passed by the House and signed into law by the President) wouldn’t necessarily provide direct funding for the streetcar, but there is expansion of Federal Loan programs which could provide a bridge between laying out funding for construction and the realization of increased property tax revenues that the streetcar would spur. The spending money to make money line of thought.

  • Again, the proposed 4 year draft Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) going to public hearing only allocates $1.5 million for the Providence streetcar, not nearly enough to even take the next step of design for the system ($7.5 million??) The Senate bill will pretty much level fund RIPTA, no way the streetcar could be funded that way. However the Senate bill does apparently keep competetive TIGER grants that RIPTA could apply for as a way of helping finance the streetcar. However, the current TIGER grant application is from RIDOT for the I-95 Viaduct.

    And to get a final Federal bill. we still have to consider the US House of Representatives whose leadership is hostile to transit.

    As for crowding, I would be reluctant to take on articulated buses on RI’s narrow roads and yet another maintenece challenge. Having experienced them on San Franciso’s busy Geary St bus line they are also a worse ride for passengers (though better than standing) For short run, better to argue for more operating funds for more runs and more jobs for drivers!

  • Not helpful for the streetcar, but there is a provision in the Senate Bill to allow transit agencies in economically distressed regions to use federal funds for operational expenses.

    Currently, federal funds can only be used for capital expenses, buying new buses, etc. They cannot be applied to operations such as payroll or healthcare. This means for RIPTA, as the economy soured and people tried to save money by taking the bus, RIPTA received more passengers, but as those people used to be drivers, the state now collects less gas tax. So RIPTA has less money and more demand. Allowing for the use of federal funds would allow RIPTA to maintain service during those times.

    It is not a permanent solution to funding RIPTA, but can help to avoid service cuts at times when the populace is relying on the agency most.

  • Here’s what I want to know. As a resident, what can I do to help move things in the right direction locally to get transit like a PVD circulator built? I went to meetings to show support for the direction the planning was heading in 2009 when I first got plugged in, but the total lack of excitement and momentum right now is really troublesome for the life of this concept.

  • I think the big problem is that EVERYTHING! needs attention now. Pensions, education, health care, RIPTA general operating revenue financial crisis, the fact that RIDOT needs to literally rebuild EVERYTHING due to decades of deferred maintenance… All of that is so far in a way in front of the concept of doing anything new.

    However, the streetcar is important for economic development as well as for transportation enhancement in the urban core. It is hard to make people understand, and with our financial difficulties at every level from the feds on down to our individual wallets, it is hard to make the argument that spending this money is important and prudent. Especially when there simply is no money.

    Linc promised to take a lead on transit and he hasn’t and when he does take a second to talk about it, it hasn’t been transit that has made the most sense for what Rhode Islanders need. He’s all about the Interlink in Warwick, and developing the Warwick Station area is great and important, but he is not the Mayor of Warwick anymore. Commuter Rail is an important piece of our transportation puzzle, but it is pretty much useless if there are not buses or other modes to move people about the city once they get here.

    There is no leadership from the Governor, from the Mayor, from the Providence members of the General Assembly, or from RIPTA’s new CEO on transportation within the urban core of the state. And the people who should be most loudly calling for the streetcar as an economic development tool, the 195 Commission, are tying themselves in knots panicing about parking for workers that may not arrive in Providence for 20 or more years.

    What can a resident do? Make sure that every time they interact with the Governor, the Mayor, the Assembly, the 195 Commission, the City Council… that they remind them of this project and how important it is.

    The naysayers have the upper hand right now, no one sees supporting the streetcar as an election issue, and in fact most probably see supporting spending on it as politically risky. Making it an election issue is the only way to make those in power respond to it. We’re unlikely to get to a point where people risk un-election for not supporting it, but we might be able to get to the point where people view supporting it as a way to gain votes to remain elected.

  • How about an informal meeting to discuss if there is anyway that we could put our heads together to develop a strategy to do the type of thing Jason is suggesting. The closest I’ve come to Linc is when he walked by me in Newport at the St Patrick’s Day parade. One 2 minute glad handing conversation isn’t going to do squat with him or any other politician. There needs to be a more organized campaign to make sure people realize the economic importance of the streetcar. I’ve even had conversations with progressive candidates who don’t get that this is about economic development, not just about public transit. Who wants to get together for a beer?

  • Let me see if I can round up some people for a very informal chat someday after work next week or the week after. I’ll send out a couple emails then post something here.

  • Late this morning I took the 11:39am #60 from Newport Gateway. By the time we got to Bristol all seats were filled and there were six standees. When the bus got to the freeway part of the journey there were eight standing. The ride from Newport to the city took 1-hour 17-minutes. Bristol is about the halfway point.

    A lot of people are still out of work and gas prices haven’t peaked. With an improving economy, if gas prices spike, RIPTA will be inundated with passengers. The last time gas prices were high, people often waited at bus stops only to be passed by because of buses were overfilled on heavily traveled routes.

    I have regularly taken cross-town articulated buses in Manhattan. New low-floor versions seem to give a better ride than the earlier high-floor types. RIPTA had articulated buses in the 1980s, so they work on the city’s streets. Given the uncertainty of fuel costs and a recovering economy it wouldn’t hurt if RIPTA had articulated buses in its fleet.

  • Press Release from the RI General Assembly:

    On Friday, March 23, the Senate Study Commission on Sustainable Transportation Funding will meet to hold the first in a series of hearings to discuss the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA).

    I had not heard of these hearings. I wonder what is the ultimate purpose of these discussions.

  • So there was an article in The Providence Jounal today about the Senate Finance Committee’s public meeting earlier this week in which the RIPTA CEO Charles Odimgbe and other transit advocates testified. There is no online article that I can find, but the print article’s gist was that this year’s deficit has been reduced from $4.6M to $1.7M, next year’s deficit has been reduced to $8M from $10M, but the next few years afterwards will continue to get larger and larger ($19M by 2016) unless a sustainable funding source is found. Odimgbe had some 2 additional quotes that I found interesting. He said that ridership through the first 8 months of 2012 is up 10% vs the same period last year. He also said, “We are working on reworking the entire system”. Not sure what that means. Can anyone else comment on this?

    Unfortunately, the article contained no quotes from Senators on the committee. Does anyone have any details on what feedback the Senate Finance Committee gave those that testified?

  • They are hiring a consultant to look at the entire system and assess it. Something which RIPTA has never done. Basically, they are running the same lines the rescued when the private carriers went under years ago, and as living, working, and commuting patterns have changed through the decades, they have not changed routing or service times. They will actually, for the first time be getting on the buses and asking people where the are going, where they came from, what would make their trip easier…

  • Thanks Jef. Hopefully it results in a positive outcome. It would also be nice if, in addition to onboard surveys, they created an online survey for input, as well.

  • Well, I think they won’t know exactly what they are doing as far as data collection until they actually have the consultant picked.

  • I don’t thnk it is fair any longer to say they are “running the same lines” as the privte system recued in the 1970s, there is significant rotue restructuring especially in East Providence, thru-service from Pawtucket, URI, Bryant and RIC service, thru-routing lines like 56-19, park-and-rides etc. Beverly Scott did a lot of that in Transit 2000 when she was GM. That said, it needs to be an ongoing process, always worth another look.

    As for the Senate Finance Committee that I attended, several grasped for ways to not have to find more funding by probing on efficiency, including merging routes, cutting lightly used lines and such. Senator O’Neill ascertained that the results of binding arbitration (in state law for RIPTA) resulted in an additional $7.5 million in personnel costs over 3 years. But overall the Senate reponse was reasonably friendly.

  • No, it is not completely unchanged, they’ve also slowly hacked away at the private lines services over the decades. The through routes are useless until they always through route, and when they do, they should have one number.

    You know what routes we never talk about merging? Route I-95 and Route I-295. I mean they both end up at the same place. Also, we could just close Route 146 because Routes 246 and 146A are right next to it.

  • I think RIPTA has done a very good job with what they have to work with, but would like to see a rework of the system outside of the core in certain area. The expanding commuter rail system should continue to be tapped into and timed to funnel folks onto the trains. I’ve heard we might see a little of that in late April when Wickford Junction opens.

    The other thing is education about these new opportunities. I’m not sure that many people know you can take the 14 to/from Newport, NK, EG, and Narragansett to the airport and then the train to/from Boston. Total cost = $10.25 each way. The 8 can provide Buttonwoods or Greenwood Church access to/from Boston for the same price as well. I’ve heard rumors that a couple of the 66 buses will time itself to the trains at Wickford.

    There also needs to be a shared RIPTA/MBTA pass program of some sort to entice folks to start making these connections.

    More of this stuff needs to happen as the system evolves and grows and RIPTA needs to be funded to adapt along with it.

  • The 14, that’s a glaring example of a RIPTA problem right there. Someone not well versed with the system looks at the map and sees that the 14 goes to T.F. Green, then it goes down to Narragansett, but also to Newport, and there’s a dotted line 14 Express, that goes down Routes 95 and 4. Looking at the map, where does that bus go and when? It doesn’t always go to Narragansett, but what if I want to go to Narragansett, if I want to go to Newport, does it go all the way to Narragansett before taking me to Newport, or does it go to Newport then Narragansett, or what the hell does it do, and how do I know which is express and not?

    Why are all these buses called 14?

    I should be able to look at the map and figure out which bus goes where and how and then consult the schedule for times. Not spend 20 minutes with the schedule trying to figure out which 14 takes me where when. You might as well number all the buses 14.

    The 19, the 1, the 3, the 60… They all go to different places at different times. At least call them the 1A, 1B, 19A, 19B, or something.

  • Because of West Main and East Main Roads, it would make sense to have a 60W and a 60E respectively. Any commuter or park and ride express could be identified by an “X”. The 14 might be more complicated because it goes to two destinations. Narragansett could be 14X-A and Newport could be 14X-B. Maybe the numbering system needs to be rethought.

  • I will be at Congress Tavern on Orange Street today at 5:30pm. Anyone is welcome to join us, I invited a few other people too. Should be a nice little discussion.

  • Quick reflection on Streetcar discussion last night at the Congress Tavern:

    I approached the conversation as a recent convert to the concepts behind New Urbanism, and public transit in general, someone with the passion and interest for the subject but without a “wonkish” understanding of the complexities of getting something like the Streetcar actually built in RI. There were many experts at the table, and it was great to hear people discuss the history of the project, and the varied ideas about how it should move forward.

    The meeting was a good first step in creating a ground up coalition made up of people with an interest in making the streetcar happen. We need to identify potential allies and stakeholders, bring them into the conversation, and continue meeting regularly to educate and develop a strategy.

    Second, I found that the strongest argument for the Streetcar is that it is, in Jeff’s words, “about economic development first, transit a close second.” Development of the 195 land and the continued revival of downtown is dependent on the streetcar. To me, that is the argument that needs to be developed and honed in these meetings, and then, ultimately sold the public, local businesses, the 195 panel and politicians.

  • Did anyone attend the May RIPTA Board Meeting, and if so, could you please speak to the current budget situation for FY12 and FY13 that I assume was discussed at the meeting? Thanks.

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