On Tuesday, January 15th there was a meeting of the Rhode Island State Properties Committee, where the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) requested clarification regarding a Request for Proposals (RFP) to sell the Route 2/102 Park and Ride lot near Wickford Junction Station. The original RFP offered to sell the land for private development, but stipulated that the Park and Ride lot would have to be relocated and rebuilt at the expense of the developer.
RIDOT asked for clarification on whether the intent of the RFP would still be valid, if the agency dropped the requirement that the Park and Ride lot be relocated and rebuilt. The committee indicated that they would not support that change. They felt that it would be a clear departure from the original RFP and would create unnecessary hardship on the public that relies on the free lot to access public transit or to park cars when people car pool. The committee chair also said that they had been told in the past by RIDOT that the Wickford Junction Parking Garage would not be available for free.
The committee questioned, if RIDOT’s request was because of a hardship incurred by the developer being unable to find an alternate location for the free Park and Ride or if it was because RIDOT needed to encourage ridership on the MBTA commuter train from Wickford Junction. The RIDOT representatives didn’t know, but said that as far as they knew everything was on the table.
The committee suggested that RIDOT should issue a new RFP to sell the Park and Ride and did not vote, but instead tabled the request. There was public commentary following, which was opposed to the elimination of the lot without providing some kind of free replacement. Over a half-dozen people testified including several elected and public officials out of the roughly 50 people that attended.
I haven’t heard what the current ridership numbers are for the Wickford station or if the numbers are below expectation. Effective January 19th, there will be new competition for commuter rail service from Wickford Junction to Providence. RIPTA will introduce a new express bus route #65, which will stop at the Route 2/102 Park and Ride. There will be six inbound #65 express buses during the morning rush hour and another five returning outbound in the afternoon.
Comparison of service Wickford Junction to Providence:
The train takes 25-minutes costing $3.25 one-way (or about $2.40 one-way with a monthly pass) ?
Parking: $4/day (or about $3.44/day with a monthly parking pass)
Minimum daily total: $8.24
The #65 express bus takes 29-minutes costing $2 one-way (or about $1.35 one-way with a monthly e-pass)
Minimum daily total: $2.70
In a perfect world the $4 daily Wickford Junction garage parking fee, plus the price of a round trip train fare to Providence, should equal or be slightly less than what it would cost to park in a garage or parking lot in Downtown Providence for the day. In some cases it doesn’t work that way. An example is RISD, which has limited amount of parking downtown. The school offers parking at a dramatically reduced rate to its faculty and staff. There may be other downtown employers, who subsidize parking as well, which competes with both commuter rail and bus transit service. Some employers, such as Brown charge their employees for parking, but pay the entire cost of their employee’s transportation, if they use RIPTA, though as I understand it, does not include costs for driving or train fare. Federal employees are eligible for up $125 per month to pay for actual mass transit costs (bus, train, or Amtrak) and possibly more in the future. It’s not downtown, but by then parking at the VA hospital might be free. Since the state has so many offices less than a 7-minute walk from the Providence Station, what subsidies does it offer to its employees for mass transit or does it subsidize parking for free instead?
At a minimum the parking fee for the Wickford Junction Garage should be reduced to $1 per day ($20 – $23 per month) for a year or two or longer. The same tactic was used to get suburbanites to shop at Providence Place Mall, who under normal circumstances would never pay for parking. The approach worked.
To address the Route 2/102 Park and Ride, if it’s relocated into the garage, parking at the garage should be free and the garage should be open and available for use 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. Serious consideration should be given to provide free parking at the station to improve commuter rail ridership regardless of whether or not the Park and Ride is moved into the garage. What might have to be determined is how to subsidize or pay for discounts or free garage access.
Making the Wickford Junction garage free would set a precedent for future train station garages. A possible way to reduce that impact might be to define two separate garage zone types:
A. City – Paid Garage Zone
B. Suburban – Free Garage Zone
Cities such as Warwick, Cranston, Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls would be within a City – Paid Garage Zone. Towns, such as North Kingstown, South Kingstown, East Greenwich, or Westerly would be within a Suburban – Free Garage Zone. The problem with this kind of proposal is that the cities would actually be subsidizing parking in the suburbs, which is similar to much of the 20th century when cities effectively subsidized suburban housing and highways.
Coordination between RIPTA, RIDOT, and the MBTA needs improvement. Scheduling and fare integration or reduced fare packages should be introduced. Rerouting RIPTA’s #14 local bus to Wickford Junction Station to bring additional passengers to the station should be studied.
I don’t know what the specific demographics will be for #65 express bus, but generally the people that use express bus service are often similar to the people that use commuter rail, which typically are middle-class office workers and executives. The state may have been mistaken, when planning for commuter rail, if it assumed that buses serve one population and trains serve another. No matter what your economic level, for a 25-minute ride, is it worth an extra 5-bucks a day, for more comfortable seats, free wifi, and a slightly higher guarantee that you’ll rarely be delayed?