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Commuter rail key to R.I. growth

Commuter rail key to R.I. growth
Scott Wolf
September 15, 2017

Mary MacDonald’s Sept. 1, 2017 article, “The state’s 2012 bet on commuter-rail service has yet to pay off. Is it time to privatize?” is sobering. While
commuter-rail ridership from Providence to Boston remains strong and growing (Providence is the third busiest station in the MBTA network), there is no question that ridership from T.F. Green Airport and Wickford Junction has fallen far short of expectations.

Infrequent service, a Boston-centric schedule, impractical equipment and slow travel times have contributed to both low ridership and a high cost-per-passenger mile. The R.I. Department of Transportation should be commended for looking into new approaches that could improve service and lower costs, as well as for exploring the potential for expanded service to Quonset Point and Kingston village.

Outsourcing to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for in-state commuter-rail service clearly isn’t meeting the needs of Rhode Islanders,
and it’s time for a new approach.  Public transit, including in-state commuter rail along the Northeast Corridor, is essential to Rhode Island’s regional competitiveness. Access to transit has become an increasingly important factor in corporate site selection – note that Amazon listed it as a “must have” for the location of their second headquarters, a search that’s now underway.

The current high cost-per-passenger mile for commuter rail in Rhode Island is a function of high fixed, operating costs and low ridership. Lowering
operating costs and attracting more riders are the only two ways to get these costs under control. Privatization might help in controlling certain costs, but the bigger issue is operational control, which is currently guided by MBTA priorities.

More-frequent service, including on weekends, is the best way to increase ridership, and should be job one. The majority of riders from Wickford Junction (in North Kingstown) commute to Providence, not Boston, and travel schedules need to accommodate these travelers.  Roughly hourly service, with more-frequent service at rush hour, would more than double the current number of trains, and coordinating arrival and departure times at Providence Station with existing MBTA service would improve connectivity to Boston from Warwick and North Kingstown. The proposed Providence Intermodal Transit Center, and Downtown Transit Corridor between Providence Station and the Hospital District would increase ridership as well.

Smaller trains designed to accommodate in-state riders, rather than all riders on the Stoughton line to Boston, could also lower operating costs.  More-frequent service, including on weekends, is the best way to increase ridership.  There is clearly unmet demand for better transit to the Quonset Business Park (in North Kingstown), which has virtually no transit service, but nearly 11,000 workers employed by 200 businesses. The population of South Kingstown, home to over 16,000 students at the University of Rhode Island, grew by 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, making it one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the state.

Commuter rail between Kingston (in South Kingstown) and Providence, along with the planned DTC in Providence, would connect URI’s main campus with the new Nursing Education Center in the LINK/Jewelry District. Better connectivity to the main URI campus via shuttle buses and bike paths from Kingston station could also increase two-way rail traffic throughout the day.  Half of all Rhode Islanders live and work in Providence and the nearby cities that surround it, and Providence alone accounts for approximately half of the state’s total Gross Domestic Product. Metro Providence is the state’s prime economic engine and we cannot expect to grow if this area cannot compete successfully for the mobile, young talent and high-paying jobs in today’s knowledge economy.

Commuter rail can be a powerful driver of transit-oriented development, particularly in the areas close to the InterLink Station at T.F. Green Airport (in Warwick) and to Providence Station, better connecting Rhode Island’s workforce to jobs.  More-frequent rail service to the airport from downtown Providence, particularly near the Capital Center District, would also enhance the value of commercial development in the heart of the city.

Quality transit is not only good for the state’s economy, but also for its environment, and quality of place. Here in the Northeast, the transportation sector is both the single-largest and fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If we’re serious about meeting Rhode Island’s aggressive goals for greenhouse gas reduction, then an improved transit system must be part of the equation. 

The Northeast Corridor is an underutilized resource for enhancing local mobility, and exploring ways to maximize its benefits should be one of RIDOT’s highest priorities. The state is about to undertake a statewide planning process to develop a comprehensive, long-term transit plan, and commuter rail needs to be an integral part of this effort.

A seamless bus and commuter-rail network, with well-coordinated routes, schedules and fare policies, would result in increased ridership, expanded
access to jobs and services and accelerated economic growth.

2 Responses to Commuter rail key to R.I. growth

  1. Alex Nunes September 17, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

    Excellent article, Scott. Infrequency of stops is the primary factor in disappointing ridership at Wickford Junction. Although, I’d also add that, while the North Kingstown area has had strong population growth and projections, it’s also worth considering other proposals when it comes to long term planning on rail in the state and service priorities. In the Westerly area, where I live, increasing numbers of people are commuting to Providence to work. Unfortunately, RIPTA bus service to the capital is equally spotty, and riding one’s car to the Wickford Junction station for train service saves little on gas and adds significantly to commute time.

    Walkability is a huge factor when considering taking train service (same with relocating to live and work in an area serviced by rail). For this reason, I think Westerly and East Greenwich should be discussed more when rail planning comes up. At present, people in both these densely-populated areas have virtually no affordable and viable rail commuting options. If East Greenwich residents travel to Wickford Junction, they’re essentially driving south to then go north. If they drive to T.F. Green, after hopping on 95 and spending all that time in traffic, they’d probably come to the conclusion they might as well just drive into Providence.

    Ultimately, North Kingstown may have more people, but it’s possible Westerly and East Greenwich have more rail potential long term because of their unique geographic characteristics and existing development structures.

    • John Flaherty September 26, 2017 at 11:19 am #

      Thanks for the comment and feedback Alex.