Greater City Providence

House holds nose, maintains status quo at RIPTA

gas pumps

Photo by vistavision from Flickr

A newish group called the New Public Transit Alliance has been lobbying to get more equitable and reliable funding for RIPTA. Yesterday, the House voted to approve a 2¢ hike to the state gas tax to help RIPTA close it’s budget gap. RIPTA’s current deficit is oscillating due to several factors, but currently stands around $10 million. The new gas tax is projected to bring in $8.8 million earmarked to go directly to RIPTA.

While the House voted for the tax, it did not pass without a few hissy fits from the members. As reported on the ProJo Blog, “Rep. Brian Kennedy, D-Hopkinton, labeled the budget proposal ‘somewhat offensive’ to people being asked to pay an extra 2 cents a gallon for public transit that is not available to them.” I would point out to Rep. Kennedy, that there is a Park n’ Ride in Hopkinton at Exit 1 off Route 95. His constituents have express bus service via Route 90W at the amazingly low price of $1.75. The same price it costs me to get across town.

Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt, D-Woonsocket, preferred to see the gas tax money go toward restoring the $55 million in revenue sharing for cities and towns that was cut from the budget (RIFuture is doing good reporting on how the Assembly could actually restore the revenue sharing). Rep. Hunt was quoted by ProJo as saying, “RIPTA’s house is a mess. All we are doing is feeding a junkie.”

I invite Rep. Hunt to read the independent audit of RIPTA published recently which shows that the agency is well run and uses it’s revenue quite efficiently compared to it’s peer transit agencies. As with everything, there is room for improvement, however Rep. Hunt shows her ignorance when classifying RIPTA as a ‘junkie.’

Majority Leader Gordon Fox while defending the need for the gas tax was no more informed than his colleages were. Again, from the ProJo: “It’s about people’s mobility…It is about keeping the state moving.”

Yes, OK. You’re right, good:

“So go down there and picket RIPTA. Go down there and demand that some of those people down there maybe shouldn’t be employed. Friends of friends. Family of friends. Family of family… But the one thing you are doing with this one is you will put people literally on the street, on their feet. And what does that mean to their quality of life?”

Sigh. The last thing RIPTA needs is Gordon Fox encouraging people to grab their pitchforks and march on their headquarters.

People have proven through their actions that they want to see a well run dependable transit system in Rhode Island. When gas hit $4/gallon last summer, RIPTA was flooded with new passengers. Of course as people stopped driving, gas tax collections went down, just as RIPTA was dealing with a massive influx of new passengers. See a problem here? This two penny increase in the gas tax will plug RIPTA’s budget hole and let it avoid cutting routes and raising fares (which are already quite high compared to other agencies it’s size). But if gas prices go up and people leave their cars, we’re going to be right back where we started from.

Also, this simply maintains RIPTA’s current service levels. Demand for buses last summer proves to us that RIPTA has to grow. It needs more buses serving more areas to serve more people more efficiently. The metropolitan area needs to develop more services such as lightrail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit. This two penny tax gives RIPTA no room to allow itself to grow.

Another proposal for funding would change the gas tax from a cents per gallon arrangement to a % per gallon arrangement. This would result in the taxes per gallon collected rising with the cost of fuel. So if people drove less and turned to RIPTA, RIPTA would still be bringing in more per gallon at the pump to allow for it to absorb the increased demand. Alternately, the gas tax could be pegged to an inflationary measure, so that it would rise and fall automatically according to that benchmark. This would allow future members of the Assembly an out whereby they would not have to be seen as raising taxes when in effect they were simply trying to make the tax match inflation.

Ultimately, the members of the Assembly and the general public need to see the value of RIPTA and stop the knee-jerk disparagement. If members of the Assembly actually learned what RIPTA is, how RIPTA is run, who RIPTA serves, and how important a robust transit system is seen by business leaders across the country, maybe we could stop playing the RIPTA Financial Crisis game every year up on Smith Hill and actually start working on moving our transit system and our state into the 21st century.

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.


  • RIPTA’s Massachusetts counterpart, the MBTA is also having its’ problems as well and may cut their services or raise fares.

  • Your attitude is wrong here. RIPTA is running a poor business and, unfortunately like so much else in RI, is dependent almost exclusively on taxes for funding. Think about the incentive: when gas prices increase, quantity demand decreases, and RIPTA enters more into debt. Wait, what? Does it not make more sense to align incentives so that RIPTA actually benefits when ridership increases?

    I believe you are in good intent wishing folks would support public transit. But you must also keep in mind that forcing funding through use of taxes is encouraging a poor business model. And I don’t think that’s a game that will produce any long term winners.

  • Faiser – There isn’t a public transit authority in the country that isn’t supported by taxes and heavily. Also, some of RIPTA’s funding does come from its fares.

    The private transportation system – Road and highway system, car companies, oil companies and also the airline industry like public transit is funded by taxes, tax breaks, and other subsidies.

    If the private system didn’t get such enormous subsidies and a larger percentage of tax money was shared with public transportation, service could be improved and that would increase overall ridership.

    More taxes should be extracted to support and develop RIPTA’s system. An increased gas tax is a great place to start.

  • As Jef always points out as well, our *roads* and bridges are also “dependent almost exclusively on taxes for funding.” By your standards, how good a “business” is the DOT? Do you think that by not charging tolls for use of roads, bridges, and tunnels we are “forcing funding through use of taxes is encouraging a poor business model” for our auto based transit?

  • I think Jef is right in that RIPTA should have a more stable source of funding than simply the gas tax, but I also think that Urbaner has a point in that raising the gas tax is at least a good place to start. An extra 2 cents a gallon isn’t anywhere near enough though. Make it 10.

  • I think Jef’s suggestion of the percentage of the price per gallon is the way to go with the gas tax, though I would favor raising the gas tax by a whole dollar.

    Taxes are a necessary means of funding public transportation systems, though they do also need a stable method of funding, which the General Assembly needs to take care of.

  • The fundamental issue here (or at least mine) is that increasing taxes to ship over to RIPTA so they could once again prove that they are able only to increase their debt is what is typically called perpetuating a non-solution to a problem. What the state needs is an actual solution.

    And sure, we can look at the statement above by Bret that “our roads and bridges are dependent almost exclusively on taxes.” And how is that model working as the interstates creep up over 60 years old? What we see is a trend to privatize, as the tax-based model has been shown to be broken, and as some states are clever enough to admit it and to act on it. RI, sadly, is not one such state.

    Granted that privatization hasn’t proven to be the panacea, but nonetheless, it represents a move that does not equate to beating the dead tax horse.

  • Ok RIPTA here is a eye opener you guys waste more that a little allowing Buses to be at Idle while waiting for passengers to load or in between runs waiting as long as 1/2 hour before returning to the roads, never mind the people who have to wait behind a bus in a busy kenny plaza with co2 emissions blowing in there face yuck.

  • Have you ever been to Kennedy Plaza? The individual buses do not sit there for half an hour. The longest I’ve ever seen a bus there is 5 minutes.

  • I didn’t know where else to post this comment. Please call your state representative today, especially if they are on the House Finance Committee and ask them to please include the provisions of the Public Transit Investment Act in the 2013/2014 budget. The committee members are listed below. Thank you.

    Representative John M. Carnevale
    Representative Frank Ferri
    Representative Raymond E. Gallison Jr.
    Representative Joy Hearn
    Representative Raymond A. Hull
    Representative Robert B. Jacquard
    Representative Jan Malik
    Representative Helio Melo
    Representative Patricia L. Morgan
    Representative Eileen S. Naughton
    Representative Deborah Ruggiero
    Representative William San Bento Jr.
    Representative Agostinho F. Silva
    Representative Scott Slater
    Representative Larry Valencia

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