This post is republished from the Coalition for Transportation Choices (CTC). The CTC calls for a 21st century transportation system that enhances our economy and provides all Rhode Islanders with healthy transportation choices. Grow Smart RI is a member of the Coalition.The Coalition for Transportation Choices recently sat down with Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, the incoming chair of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s Board of Directors, to discuss the future of the state’s public transit agency, as it faces public outcry over reduced service and the need for increased and more sustainable funding.
What do you think are three biggest challenges you are facing at RIPTA?
I think number one is that we have to get our financial house in order. We’re pretty close. We had a $4.6 million projected deficit, which is down below $1.9 million now, so we’re going in the right direction.
I think the second thing is that we need to be talking positively about mass transit. I made comments at a board meeting that we can’t have the staff, the union, and the management all arguing with one another. We need to start walking forward, with everyone talking about the assets that we bring to the table, and what we mean to the state.
And third, one of the things I am really concerned about, is perception. When the article appeared in the paper about me being named RIPTA chair, I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, “What are you doing at RIPTA? That’s how poor people get to work.” We’ve got to get rid of that idea…that we’re not a bus company for people who don’t have any other resources and no other way to get to work. We’ve got to change the attitude so that people want to take the bus, because it is more effective and efficient.
So we all have a lot of work to do, but I think these are our three biggest issues.
Who, beside yourself on occasion, do you see using the bus?
People are choosing (to take the bus to places such as school and work) because for some it is from an environmental perspective. They want to be part of the solution in not having a carbon footprint, and not adding more pollution by virtue of not having a car. Or it might be not having a car because they don’t want to have the car payments and the insurance payments, pay for gasoline, et cetera. For some people, especially if you live downtown, the parking has to be horrible, if you live in a loft down there. So why not get rid of that whole concept that you worry about?
What about the basics of bus transit?
It has to be convenient…It is just like rail service. It has to be there at the time you want to move. And it can’t be complicated.
We need to look at our routes. The ones that are doing really well. The ones that are producing income and moving people. And we have to balance that off against some routes that you may not run at a certain time of day because they are not cost-effective, and we are not moving anyone.
The person who lives in Burrillville, who needs to get to Providence once a week, has the same right to expect a public transportation system that takes care of their issue, as well as someone who lives in the city and has to go out to somewhere else. We are understanding that concept, that change in attitude, that it may be a smaller number of people (from outside urban areas), but on a consistent basis, they have the right to be transported to where they need to go, too.
That is what came up at last fall’s RIPTA public forums around the state. That you can’t cut that bus, because that’s our bus.
Well, that is typical Rhode Island. People are very territorial. And I learned that it is not just their bus…it’s their seat. So don’t sit in Jim’s seat, or don’t sit in Susie’s seat, because it is the way it is going to be. There is a routine. And that’s actually encouraging. If we can get more people on the bus, or we figure out, well, here’s a big employer. And they start work at 8:30. They have a whole group of people that they need to get there for 8:30. And they are coming from three distinct geographical areas. Well, maybe we figure out a way that we are their provider. Whether it’s a Park-n-Ride, or whatever, that we encourage that in a different manner. We move people effectively. Because if we have 300 fewer cars coming into an area in a day, it is better off for everybody. But we need to be thinking about some different approaches.
One of the things that has been so difficult – so far – is because our finances have been so chaotic in the last year, that virtually every discussion has been on finances and not on (the RIPTA) vision and where we could go with it. And we need to change that. So one of the things that is happening (starting in April) is that after opening comments at every board meeting, we are going to have stakeholder comments. And we will have a group at each meeting, whether it’s our employees one month, or it’s going to be CTC the next month, RIPTA Riders, Sierra Club, or another advocacy group or more employees, the board will have them get up and give us an update on what they are doing and where things are. I don’t think we see enough – and realize enough about – the advocates that are out there.
The CTC is trying to stress that point, because we have 50, cross-cutting member groups, from big businesses to rider and bike groups. We hear at public forums that the board has to be more vocal at the General Assembly. In that context, hearing what we hear, how can we, as an advocacy group, help you?
We have a new board, a good mix now, representing a variety of interests. I think we have a very good board. The issue is that we have to now say, OK, rather than being leery of an advocacy group coming in the door, how do we partner with them? Not every (advocacy) group should be seen as taking away from the mission of the agency. Most of them enhance the mission of the agency.
Do you have other ideas you would like to institute along those lines, like the stakeholder input?
Well, I think we have to partner. When you look at the history of the gas tax, when money was flowing hand over fist, no one cared. There was so much money you didn’t know what to do with it. Now that that is not the case, we have to really talk about what is it that we provide, and how do we make it better? But, at the same time, where is our discussion about how we enhance it? And I think that because our finances have been so bad, we haven’t had those discussions. It has been more stop-gap: how do we survive, what do we need to do tomorrow, instead of “where are we going to be 10 years down the road?”
We have started the discussion on the core connector. Maybe it’s a combination of streetcars, buses, vans, taxis…but we need to have that link to rail. With Wickford Junction opening, that is going to be a critically important component here, and maybe part of RIPTA’s issue as a mobility manager for the state, is we have to figure out about the person who gets to Wickford Junction, and then has to wait an hour to go to the airport – are we making that effective? And maybe we need a Wickford-Warwick Station-Providence dedicated route that just moves people back-and-forth. So that going to Wickford is a real alternative to driving into Providence every day. And conversely, moving people in the opposite direction.
What if we got to a point where not only do we have MBTA service coming down from the north, we have Metro North coming up from the south, so we build this incredible continuum, so you can go anywhere you want in a pretty easy manner?
There are lots of things that we need to be doing, and there are lots of advocacy groups out there who have been talking about this for a long time. I don’t think that we have necessarily taken advantage of the work that the advocacy groups have done. We have not really partnered with them, and that has to change.
Instead of looking at those people as taking away from our mission, they are really enhancing the mission.
In March, Mayor Avedisian led a RIPTA board of directors meeting at which the RIPTA funding bill the CTC is supporting at the General Assembly, the Public Transit Investment Act – H7581 – was endorsed with only one dissenting vote, with Avedisian voting to have the board give it their formal seal of approval.