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Rhode Island’s commuter rail service as currently conceived may not be conducive to encouraging ridership. Distances between existing and proposed stations are too far. Much of the focus has been on extending the system further into low-density suburbs. For Rhode Island commuter rail to succeed, more needs to be done to take advantage of existing walkable urban neighborhoods that have a high potential for passengers. Some of these areas have large amounts of commercial/industrial space or development opportunities. Due to Downtown Providence expansion, the rail system will be challenged, as long as there’s no internal downtown high-frequency transit, such as the proposed Core Connector, to directly link rail passengers to the far reaches of downtown.
Rhode Island’s commuter rail doesn’t capitalize on density variations and neighborhood assets of the Providence area. If Rhode Island’s commuter rail functioned as a rapid mass-transit system, besides increasing the number of passengers, it would help to revitalize and expand development opportunities for neighborhoods along the rail line. The implementation of medium frequency shuttle train service within the Rhode Island instate rail corridor would offer predictable headway times at regular intervals that could operate in addition to MBTA commuter and Amtrak trains. Air and intercity train travelers, commuters, and the general public would greatly benefit from this level of service.
A variation to a commuter rail or shuttle train is the German S-bahn or French RER or San Francisco’s BART. An S-bahn type system is usually the same as commuter rail in suburban areas, but differs when it’s within the central urban core, where it has characteristics of a subway or metro. Usually stations within the core zone are located close together at quarter- to half-mile subway station distances and schedule headway times typically fall somewhere in the middle of commuter rail and subway schedules. Depending on the city, central core rail infrastructure can be underground or at grade utilizing existing rail corridors. A hybrid of a shuttle train and an S-bahn might be best for Rhode Island.
One way to organize Rhode Island’s rail system would be to create different station tiers allowing for various levels of service and investment in station infrastructure. Tier service levels could be thought about as intercity or express (Amtrak), regional or limited (MBTA), and local (RI Shuttle trains). Shuttle trains should be able to stop at all stations and MBTA trains should have stops at major commuter and Amtrak stations. The hours of operation of a shuttle train should extend to weekends and late evening at all stations. Because a shuttle train schedule would be frequent and regular, it would relieve the need to increase the number of MBTA commuter trains for Rhode Island transit needs or having to extend MBTA weekend service south of Providence.
Shuttle train stations should require a lower level of investment. Platforms could be adjacent to the freight track. Priority should be given to constructing affordable shuttle train infill stations without automotive accommodations. An infill train station could consist of as little as a single high-level concrete platform with stairs, handicapped ramp, railings, partial canopy, lighting, and signage. Some stations might require an elevator instead of a ramp for ADA access. Without the land acquisition and construction costs for parking, drop-off facilities, station buildings, or pedestrian bridges, the cost range for a barebones single 300-foot long infill platform with modest accessories should cost between $500,000 to $1-million. A typical 900-foot long platform would be roughly $2 to $4-million. Because of increased service frequency, a shuttle train could have fewer cars and utilize shorter platforms that could be extended in the future, reducing the initial infrastructure investment. Shorter trains and platforms would allow the system to develop incrementally as ridership increases.
Infill stations should mostly be located within high-density urban neighborhoods where people can either walk or take existing bus transit to stations with limited or no automotive infrastructure. To optimize use by pedestrian’s stations should be designed so that they would have direct access from sidewalks of major streets with bus routes. Major streets and bus routes can act as siphons to funnel potential passengers from adjacent neighborhoods to stations. Bus routes that intersect the rail line corridor would effectively extend the passenger capture area of a walkable neighborhood. A passenger capture area would be the total population that’s within less than a 12-minute walk and/or a 7-minute bus ride to a train station.
Infill stations could become catalysts to renew employment opportunities in older industrial neighborhoods, reinforcing economic development. Lower income people from urban neighborhoods would be able to commute without needing a car. A series of stations served by frequent shuttle train service would create true rapid transit for Rhode Island passengers to quickly reach jobs or homes in adjacent cities or distant neighborhoods, not possible with the bus system. The increased use of commuter/shuttle trains would reduce traffic congestion and lower air pollution. Opportunities to concentrate additional employment and population around stations would help to limit the expansion of suburban sprawl.
There is historic precedence of having closely situated train stations within Providence documented on city maps from 1918. In addition to Union Station, previous train stations existed at Atwells Avenue, in Olneyville at Westminster Street (northbound) and Dyke Street (southbound), Cranston Street, and in Elmwood. There are likely other forgotten stations outside of Providence. I remember being told as a boy that my great-grandfather would regularly take the train to Providence from Woodlawn in Pawtucket. As late as the 1960s there were the ruins of a wooden stairway leading down to the tracks at Lonsdale and Mineral Spring Avenues.
Currently proposed urban infill stations are 300 Barton Street in Pawtucket, Olneyville, and Park Avenue in Cranston. Other potential infill stations could include Central Falls and in Providence at Reservoir Avenue, Cranston Street, Atwells Avenue, and Charles Street. Also Hunt Street, Mineral Spring Avenue, Branch Avenue, Dean Street, Union, and Roger Williams Avenues could be considered. Suburban industrial infill stations could be built toward the northern end of Jefferson Boulevard and Davisville/Quonset though these locations might require additional bus shuttle service. There would be infill station opportunities with the Lincoln and Cumberland villages along the Blackstone River, for when train service would be extended to Woonsocket. A station at Route 116 with elevators and escalators reaching to the Washington Highway bridge deck would allow passengers to access buses to Lincoln and Smithfield’s office region.
Olneyville’s potential for a high number of passengers should be a top priority. The current proposal for Olneyville locates a platform on Harris Avenue, away from the Broadway and Westminster Street bus routes. This location was likely chosen because construction costs would be low. A direct access walkway/ramp to the Harris Avenue platform from Broadway and Westminster should be provided, which could be developed through easements with the abutting commercial property and elderly high-rise south of the proposed platform. From looking at census tract data and existing bus routes the passenger capture area for Olneyville is probably the highest with roughly 28,000 people who could reach the station in less than a 12-minute walk and/or 7-minute bus ride. If only 5% of that population used the train that would equal 1,400 people or up to 2,800 passenger trips per day. Olneyville also has over a million square feet of commercial/industrial space, much of which is vacant or underutilized, plus vacant land for new development within walking distance from the station location.
Pawtucket officials and RIDOT favor the 300 Barton Street location for a Downtown Pawtucket station. Fewer people would be within walking distance of this station, but bus service would expand its passenger capture area of roughly 13,000 to 15,000 people. The lower western quadrant of Central Falls would be walkable to this station. Development opportunities would be great for Downtown Pawtucket. RIDOT/VHB’s proposed 2009 Option “A” plan would be preferable, as both proposed station platforms would have direct access to Dexter Street’s sidewalks and buses without requiring a special drop-off circle for buses within the parking lot. Option “B” should be rejected as it isolates the station creating a condition favorable to automobiles and access to Dexter Street would be indirect and circuitous for pedestrians, which might limit opportunities for smart growth development in Downtown Pawtucket. The current plans to include a parking lot and vehicle drop-off area, though expensive should probably remain, since Pawtucket is a regional center and would be a major MBTA station. In the future the current proposed parking lot could be upgraded to a multi-level structured facility.
In Central Falls a rail platform located near Sacred Heart Avenue would serve the eastern half of Central Falls and some of Pawtucket north of downtown. Roughly 8,000 people would be within walking distance of this station, which would not have pedestrian overlap with the proposed Barton Street Station in Pawtucket. The adjacent Central Falls neighborhoods that would benefit are among the poorest and highest density communities in the state. This station location should be considered in addition to Barton Street.
Other infill station possibilities include a Cranston Street station, which would have a passenger capture of roughly 13,000 to 15,000 people in Providence and Cranston. The Huntington Industrial Park on Niantic Avenue has about a million square feet of commercial/industrial space, some of which has been converted to offices. Not that it’s necessarily practical to rebuild the entire district, but the Huntington Industrial Park is built-out to a small fraction of what is permitted by current zoning. The Corliss Industrial Park at Charles Street has similarities to the Huntington Industrial Park. A Charles Street station would have an approximate capture area of about 15,000 to 17,000 people. Passengers would be more reliant on arriving by bus from the North End-Charles Street area, Wanskuck, and Elmhurst, since the potential for passengers walking to the station might be more limited.
Reservoir Avenue near Adelaide would have a capture area of about 14,000 to 16,000 people in Elmwood and the Reservoir Triangle extended by bus to parts of Cranston, South Providence, and the West End. An Atwells Avenue station might only have a capture area of 5,000 to 6,000 residents, but a station platform at this location would be a critical link to Atwells Avenue restaurant/retail tourism district, as well as, commercial and industrial space in the Eagle Square vicinity and residential neighborhoods in the Valley area, parts of Federal Hill, Lower Mount Pleasant and Olneyville. A Cranston station located at or near Park Avenue would have a rough capture area of 6,000 people from Cranston, South Elmwood, and Warwick. If a Park Avenue bus route were reinstated for the full length of the avenue, the station’s passenger capture area could be further expanded. This location would likely be a major MBTA commuter station and require automotive access and parking facilities.To justify the construction costs for the TF Green and Wickford commuter rail stations and parking facilities, there should be as many commuters destined for Providence as for Boston. It is possible for commuters to access distant employment areas within the Boston/Cambridge area because Boston’s subway extends the reach of commuter rail stations. The expanded Downtown Providence area will be handicapped as several of the city’s employment areas are beyond reasonable walking distance and underserved by bus transit. It’s essential to build at least a portion of the Core Connector to make Providence Station viable as a destination commuter rail station. Maximum interconnectivity to multiple stations with a large potential passenger base is the key to creating a robust rail system. The current blueprint for Rhode Island commuter rail is limited. To revive older neighborhoods and improve the state’s economic base, the rail system should serve more than just Providence and Boston commuters and intercity train travelers. Providing a handful of expensive commuter rail stations, most of which are in low-density suburbs, is not enough to substantially increase commuter train ridership and insure the success of the system. It would have to be confirmed, but it’s likely that between Central Falls and Cranston there are 100,000 people that could reach the rail line by a short walk or bus ride.
It may be unconventional to propose constructing inexpensive infill train stations geared toward pedestrians and bus riders without parking, who would be served by shuttle trains, but it would transform Rhode Island’s rail system into rapid mass-transit, as well as, commuter and intercity rail. Besides being economical, urban infill stations could be built quickly. Since platforms are relatively low cost and there’s a present need to improve the regularity of train service between Providence and the airport, rather than spending years on studies, conducting a pilot program where a few or several urban infill stations could be built would be worth testing. All passenger types would benefit with this truly competitive alternative to driving within the core metro area. The passenger base for RIPTA buses would be reinforced and expanded, as would MBTA commuter trains. There may be objections from Amtrak and the MBTA or others regarding close proximity of stations and frequency of service. Since Amtrak schedules are on one- or two-hour intervals and MBTA trains run approximately on the half hour at weekday peak and less frequently at other times, urban infill stations and shuttle train service operating mostly on the freight track shouldn’t interfere with either agency. The advantages of developing a rapid-transit rail spine for Rhode Island’s people and economy would outweigh any objections.