AS THEY CLIMBED onto the Number 8-Jefferson Boulevard bus at Kennedy Plaza at 6:35 on a mid-summer Tuesday morning, the commuters were certainly angry, but fear was running strong, too. A reporter had just told them that their bus, which operates 11 times daily from downtown Providence to a heavily industrial section of Warwick, is one of 18 routes that could be cut by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, which always seems to be running on empty.
"I won’t have a way to get to work — I don’t drive," says Jerry Hall of Providence, who works at
a Warwick jewelry factory close to the Number 8 route.
Ditto says Dick Munro, who lives in Portsmouth, takes a bus to RIPTA’s hub at Kennedy Plaza, then gets the Number 8 to his job at a state Department of Transportation maintenance facility off Jefferson Boulevard. The same for Darrius Braddox, who processes eyeglass lenses at McLeod Optical Company. I’ll probably be getting a car next year," Braddox says, thinking his long-range options out loud. "But you should always have alternative means of getting around."
Come January, however, hundreds of Rhode Islanders may be without cheap transportation to get to their jobs, see doctors and friends, and shop at supermarkets if RIPTA goes through with the cuts.
The moves, including the layoff of 35 of RIPTA’s 800 workers, could have a devastating impact on the transit system, depriving three towns of their already skimpy RIPTA service, snuffing out an innovative Providence transit experiment, and hacking off portions of routes that are productive overall. Even if the cuts don’t go through (and last-minute rescues have averted some past cliffhangers), the way in which RIPTA is again contemplating big changes erodes confidence in the system — the kind of trust that experts say is essential if commuter are to consider using mass transit instead of their cars.
This latest crisis also shows that despite millions of dollars being poured into the system for landmark projects — including the $11.7 million rebuilding of RIPTA’s hub and terminal at Kennedy Plaza, and the creation of its $24.2 million maintenance facility in Elmwood — mass transit remains a distant cousin in a Rhode Island transportation system that overwhelmingly favors cars.
The proposed cuts — to be discussed at a round of public hearings in September — will require final action from the seven-member RIPTA board. They include:
• Eliminating Providence’s "trolley" system, in which 13 natural gas-powered buses, built to look like old-fashioned street cars, prowl downtown and the city’s neighborhoods in continuous loops so that commuters, shoppers and tourist wait no more than 15 minutes for a ride. A RIPTA survey suggests that half of the 730,000 rides counted each year are taken by people who might not otherwise use regular RIPTA service.
• Cancellation of a route that links Newport with the University of Rhode Island, crossing Narragansett Bay to Jamestown into South County, ending at the Kingston railroad station.
• A curfew on weekend evening service after 7 p.m.
• Cancellation of all holiday service.
• Abandonment of three towns — Burrillville, Foster, and Glocester — frustrating RIPTA’s goal of becoming an effective statewide system.
• Elimination of two of three Saturday RIPTA bus routes to Warwick’s T.F. Green State Airport from Providence, backsliding from the concept of coordinating various forms of transportation.
"This list is what I call the scared cows," says Mark Therrien, who should know since, as RIPTA’s planning chief, he helped compile the list and is keenly aware of RIPTA’s sensitive elements.
Therrien can tell you that the Number 8 bus passes by Warwick businesses that support 5000 jobs; that the Number 9 goes to the state’s Zambarano Hospital in Burrillville; and that if the Number 64 is axed, the only way for Newport students to get to URI will be to first ride north for about an hour to Providence, then south to the university. "RIPTA service is kind of at as crossroads," says state Senator Daniel P. Connors (D-Cumberland), who chairs RIPTA’s board. "It’s a matter whether the state wants to have a statewide public transit system or not."
On the losing side of the four-to-three vote on July 26 to consider cuts, Connors says that the hearings themselves will send the wrong message to the public and divert the RIPTA staff from looking for ways to increase service and revenue.
Even some board members who voted to at least consider cuts, and to hold public hearings, say they think the proposed moves would cripple RIPTA.
Thomas E. Deller, director of Providence’s Department of Planning and Development, said when he made the motion to go ahead with hearings, he hoped to focus state leaders’ and the public’s attention on how financially anemic RIPTA really is. Contemplating spending cuts is a "responsible" approach to avoiding a deficit, Deller says, and the process is necessary "to raise the issue to a political level, so that people will understand what a tight budget will do to transit in the state of Rhode Island."
MEASURED BY RIPTA’S soap opera kind of history, this latest crisis was unexpected, since it was only last year that a similar series of suggested cuts created a political storm. That ended when Governor Donald L. Carcieri pledged to support the bus service, and the state found a way to pump $3 million into it in the form of extra Medicaid payments.
You might ask how Medicaid could cure RIPTA’s money problems. It worked this way: the state-federal health program was already paying bus costs for clients of the state’s RIte Care low-income health program. State budget wizards discovered a way to increase the federal dollars. More state money was needed to match federal funds, but the budgeteers made up for that by diverting a sliver of RIPTA’s share of the gasoline tax into the state general fund. RIPTA still came out ahead.
Henry Kinch, RIPTA’s deputy general manager, says the move was appreciated, but that it’s exactly the kind of "hodgepodge" funding that’s allowed RIPTA to bump along year after year without really paving the way to a dependable long-term future.
In fact, no sooner had Republican Carcieri and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly stopped feuding over the current budget that RIPTA described the problems facing its $74.2 million budget.
For one thing, labor costs could add another $1 million in expenses, the result of an arbitration that ended an 18-month bargaining standoff with the bus drivers’ and mechanics’ union. The union says it expects that when the award is formally announced, it will provide a middling pay hike — zero for 2003, 2.5 percent this year and 3.5 percent in 2005 — and a pension improvement, along with imposition of a two-tier pay scale, with less money for new maintenance workers. Secondly, continued fuel hikes are expected to add another $400,000 to the deficit, and thirdly, RIPTA says it’s costing $285,000 more than expected to run vans for transporting disabled persons who can’t ride regular buses.
In another wrinkle, RIPTA contends that the state Department of Elderly Affairs owes it nearly $700,000 for maintaining vans used to take senior citizens to meal sites, doctors’ visits, and other errands, because maintenance now costs about $10,000 per vehicle, per year (more about this eye-popper later).
In total, the fiscal 2005 deficit is more than $1.7 million, and together with the DEA "receivable" from last year, RIPTA forecasters believe they’ll run short by $2.4 million at the end of the fiscal year next June. This is why RIPTA is contemplating nearly $4 million in annual service cuts. That number is twice the current deficit, but the agency has to cover the entire shortfall in just six months.
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Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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