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R.I. economy needs investment in modern and efficient transportation infrastructure

Train Station at T.F. Green Airport, photo from RIDOT

Last week, Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) announced that, from July through the end of the year, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter rail service will be free for people traveling within the state. The intention of the pilot program is to attract new riders who, in theory, will then realize the convenience of the rail line and continue to utilize it in the future. However, unless you are commuting to and from Boston, commuter rail service in Rhode Island is not very useful. Despite offering three MBTA stations in the state, service proves to be infrequent and unreliable. Lack of coordinated policy in solving transportation problems is a major cause. Large expenditures for highways and extending MBTA service to South County, albeit solving some traffic problems, have failed to eliminate growing traffic congestion throughout the Providence metropolitan area. If some action is not taken, rising immobility may erode the basic economic fiber of the state.

To become more economically independent from Boston and promote more local sustainable development, Rhode Island must develop a stronger public transit system. For example, looking to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor connecting Providence with Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., it is one of the region’s most important transportation arteries. Yet, most Rhode Islanders associate the route only with long-distance commuting, which is an unfortunate association falling far short of its full potential.

By restoring a fourth track on the Northeast Corridor and making some adjustments to existing stations and overpasses, Rhode Island could have a frequent and fast rail shuttle operating between T.F. Green Airport and Pawtucket. The shuttle would operate more like a subway than a commuter rail, by reliably connecting residents of the Providence metropolitan area to jobs, education and medical facilities, as well as commercial and entertainment centers.

The thirteen-mile route would have convenient infill stations throughout to serve local commuters, while the existing stations at T.F. Green Airport and Providence would continue to allow passengers to transfer onto long-distance Amtrak and MBTA trains. A Providence metro rail would also serve to relieve congestion on I-95 and surrounding communities, in addition to providing a solid foundation for decentralizing some of RIPTA’s bus operations. By adding new rail service, RIPTA would have the opportunity to create additional transfer hubs, effectively freeing up valuable space in Kennedy Plaza so it can become a more vibrant and healthy civic center without negatively impacting commuters.

Despite the current political climate not being favorable for federally funded mass transit projects, a few possibilities exist for the state to fund such a project independently. Tax-increment financing and other value capture methods have become increasingly popular in the United States. In Chicago alone, the Cook County Clerk’s Office reported over $5 billion in collected property taxes between 1986 and 2011. Money for a rail project in Rhode Island could also come from congestion pricing for cars traveling between Warwick and Pawtucket (parallel to the Northeast Corridor) during peak commuting hours. While any variation of tolling is usually a tough sell, if the general public understands where the money is going, the idea would be less likely to meet great resistance.

No matter the financing, creating a frequent and reliable rail service in Rhode Island will assist in relieving present and future traffic congestion, protect and enhance property values, increase the mobility of the economy, reduce travel time, and provide a safe means of transportation. Investing in modern and efficient transportation infrastructure is necessary to maintain and grow the state’s economy. Building a rail shuttle between T.F. Green Airport and Pawtucket is a logical first step.

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6 Responses to R.I. economy needs investment in modern and efficient transportation infrastructure

  1. Steve July 6, 2017 at 3:54 pm #

    True, but a major part of the dynamic is the “Rhode Island mentality”.

    It is thus mentality that:
    1- compares the state with a city (Boston)
    2- fails to recognize that it is Providence – not Rhode Island – is the economic core of southeastern New England
    3- is not aware that the Providence Metro is all of RI and southeastern MA; the 1.6 million person second largest metro in New England
    4- fails to understand that the mass transit (rail or otherwise) is Providence based; not state based (a good example is the TFGeen StTion connects OVD airport to the city, Warwick is irrelevant)

    Note: RI is not economically dependent on Boston – it is Providence that must achieve a stronger economic (and transit) base for its metro.

    Bottom line, the mass transit solution is to recognize that Providence is the core from which roles and incentives must be built.

  2. Tom ONeill July 6, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

    Liam.

    Thank you for this important and timely message. We need to hear it over & over.

  3. Ryan July 7, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    By restoring a fourth track on the Northeast Corridor and making some adjustments to existing stations and overpasses, Rhode Island could have a frequent and fast rail shuttle operating between T.F. Green Airport and Pawtucket. The shuttle would operate more like a subway than a commuter rail, by reliably connecting residents of the Providence metropolitan area to jobs, education and medical facilities, as well as commercial and entertainment centers.

    The thirteen-mile route would have convenient infill stations throughout to serve local commuters, while the existing stations at T.F. Green Airport and Providence would continue to allow passengers to transfer onto long-distance Amtrak and MBTA trains. A Providence metro rail would also serve to relieve congestion on I-95 and surrounding communities, in addition to providing a solid foundation for decentralizing some of RIPTA’s bus operations. By adding new rail service, RIPTA would have the opportunity to create additional transfer hubs, effectively freeing up valuable space in Kennedy Plaza so it can become a more vibrant and healthy civic center without negatively impacting commuters.

    I’ve made no secret of my opposition to Wickford Junction at every single step of the process and maintain that it’s done far more to damage the potential of mass rail transit in Rhode Island than anything else has or will. But, it’s there, and we’re forced to continue utilizing it – so it’s imperative that a mass transit solution actually continue to incorporate Wickford Junction. At minimum, fast and frequent bus service between Wickford Junction and the town of Wickford, East Greenwich, and Jamestown/Newport. South County, with the debatable exception of the 14/65/66 buses, has no functional transit in spite of the fact that many historic points of interest are both very walkable and could be quite transit accessible.

    With respect to Steve, I don’t understand what point he’s actually trying to make, because he decries the “Rhode Island mentality” in the same post where he declares all of Rhode Island to be part of the Providence metro area. To be clear, all of Rhode Island is within the Providence metro and far more of Rhode Island (in particular, South County’s historic villages and town centers) needs to be integrated both to Providence in a meaningful way (not by a 90 minute bus ride on a route that runs hourly or less) and also to each other.

    We should be running a subway-like (or even Metro-North like) in-state solution for travel between Kingston and South Attleboro (and yes, because South Attleboro is part of the RI Metro area, the trains should run there too), and we should be complementing that all-day frequent shuttle service with strong regional bus routes that connect places that people actually want to go to with the train stations that should have been built to serve them. And we should be partnering with MA and CT to ensure that our regional shuttle train has complementing service on either of its ends, allowing for through travel in either direction – RI trains should meet Shore Line East trains at Kingston, and in partnership with the MBTA a Metro-North style local/express paradigm should be implemented in Providence.

  4. Steve July 7, 2017 at 11:48 am #

    Hi Ryan –

    Perhaps we are “talking past” each other.

    You make my point is when you state “South Attleboro is part of the RI Metro area…”

    It is part of the PROVIDENCE METRO.

    There is no “RI Metro area”.

    It is the 1.6 million person Providence Metro – all of RI and southeastern MA. That should be our frame of reference – not this state or MA.

    So, while I fully agree with all of your transit points, my concern is that until folks shed the RI thing and view all mass transit (and other economic, cultural, social factors) from a PVD Metro view; any comprehensive effort will fail to encompass the full metro area or even to get traction.

    The mentality I speak of and dread is a widespread and very parochial, small town, non-metro perspective played out in a state view of life that simply is not relevant to almost all dynamics (including mass transit) except for state law, state government budget, and state taxes).

  5. Rick July 7, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    Part of the reason is the lack of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in Rhode Island. Under no circumstances should any more residential development be permitted near Providence station, as that allows Providence to act more as a suburb of Boston than a city. Residential TOD should be explored for Pawtucket Warwick and Wickford though. If Wickford was developed more like a mixed use community rather than a walmart strip mall, ridership would likely be double.

    Once people get in their cars and have to drive for 10 min or more, they might as well keep driving. If you can get them within a 5-10 min walk of the station, that’s a game changer and what we need in RI to have successful transit network.

  6. Andrew I July 10, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    “The only way to travel from South County to Providence is by car” is not the outrage that needs to be addressed first.

    More outrageous is that most people who live in places like Mount Pleasant or the East Side drive everywhere they ever need to go. Kids are driven to and from school.

    There already is a ten mile swath of “Transit Oriented Development” that is not functioning as it should. The many neighborhoods dense enough to support transit need to be covered by a frequent, non-congested bus network (not the current radial system) and safe bicycle routes that actually connect everywhere. Parking policies, zoning policies and economic development subsidies should operate to move shopping out of big boxes and into neighborhoods.

    Stop trying to rescue the sunk cost of idiotic Wickford Junction.

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