PROVIDENCE — As decision day looms for RIPTA, the state’s public transit authority, to implement massive service cuts that would eliminate at least part of 39 of its 54 bus routes, protests are escalating in from riders and public officials alike.
Pawtucket is one of the hardest hit areas, with several routes reduced or eliminated altogether, and Burrillville and Glocester residents face losing an important transportation link to the central part of the state, many of whom use it to get back and forth from work or school.
RIPTA officials have already gotten an earful from citizens at a dozen public hearings held across the state in recent weeks. They in turn are urging people to contact their elected officials to get them to increase funding for the agency.
A group called RIPTA Riders held a protest at the Statehouse Wednesday and delivered copies of a petition with 1,500 signatures, many of them gathered online to “stop any and all cuts to public transportation,” to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.
Part of the problem is that the state subsidizes RIPTA by dedicating a portion of the gasoline tax. As people turn to buses with the ever-rising cost of gasoline, the amount of gasoline tax the state collects drops, so RIPTA’s funding shrinks at the same time the demand for its services increases.
In a letter to Paiva Weed released Wednesday, Sen. Paul Fogarty, who represents parts of Glocester and Burrillville, called on the Senate President to work with the governor and House speaker to find a new funding stream for RIPTA.
"The state does not support RIPTA from general revenue,” Fogarty noted, “rather their funding from state resources comes from a portion of the gasoline tax. I am asking your office to work with the leadership of the House of Representatives and the Governor to come up with a more practical funding solution that would support RIPTA's continued operations and avoid any more cuts in service.
"I cannot adequately express the detrimental effect these service cuts would have on the many elderly and lower income residents in my district who count on this service as part of their everyday lives," the senator added. Among the routes targeted for a reduction in service is Route 9 between Providence and Pascoag, Fogarty said, which is the only bus route through northwestern Rhode Island.
The service cuts will be a key topic of discussion when the RIPTA board of directors meets Monday at 1:30 at RIPTA’s Melrose Street headquarters in Providence.
Pawtucket routes that would be eliminated altogether include: Rte. 53 Smithfield Avenue; Rte. 73 Fairlawn/CCRI; Rte. 75 Dexter/Lincoln Mall, and Rte. 80 Armistice Boulevard.
Service on Rte. 79 Columbus Avenue would be eliminated on Saturdays and Sundays would see Rte. 77 Benefit/Broadway stopped as well as Rte. 34 East Providence and Rte. 35 Rumford. There would be no weekend service at all for Rte. 76 Central Ave.
Rte. 9 Pascoag/Providence would see a reduction in the number of runs each day, as would Rte. 34 East Providence; Rte. 35 Rumford and Rte. 77 Benefit/Broadway.
Also, many routes would stop service at 10 p.m. on weekdays, weekends, or both.
Rochelle Lee, a member of RIPTA Riders and a former RIPTA board member said, “Our elected officials need to fight harder for us at the Statehouse (and in Washington). If they want to see our state’s economy compete; they need to assure people that affordable public transit will reliably get them to and back from work. That can only happen when RIPTA is able to count on the funding it deserves.”
Richard Rose, a spokesman for RIPTA Riders, told The Times Thursday, “It’s really not RIPTA’s decision in the end. The real problem is that RIPTA is not getting enough funding and we have been asking the politicians to fund RIPTA better. What we’ve heard from RIPTA management is that if the politicians tell them that funding is on the way they are not going to make these cuts.”
But while key legislative leaders say they are sympathetic with RIPTA’s plight, they give no indication that financial help is on the way.
Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Fox, said Fox plans to meet with the RIPTA Riders Monday morning before the board of directors meeting to discuss their complaints and he plans to meet with RIPTA board members soon.
“He doesn’t want to see service cuts,” Berman said of Fox. But, he added, the budget for this year is already set and when RIPTA board members went before the finance committee this spring, they said the budget allocation they received would be satisfactory. He said legislative leaders were “taken aback” when RIPTA announced the service cuts. “At this point, the budget has been established,” Berman said.
In a written statement issued Thursday, Paiva Weed said, “I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Fogarty that RIPTA busing is a vital service to many Rhode Islanders, particularly the many seniors and working people who rely on public transportation as part of their daily lives. Many Rhode Islanders depend upon RIPTA service to reach their places of employment, important doctors’ visits, and other destinations. I look forward to working with Senator Fogarty, the Senate Finance Committee and the RIPTA Board to identify stable sources of income for RIPTA which will place them on sound and sustainable financial footing well into the future.”
At a public hearing in Pawtucket August 4 RIPTA CEO Charles Odimgbe said the agency “never wants to cut service…we don’t.” But, he added, without a change in the funding formula away from the gas tax, the agency is left with no alternatives.
“You need to reach out to your elected officials, and especially, the governor’s office,” Odimgbe said.
Odimgbe, who has publicly described the cuts as “painful,” told the Pawtucket public hearing,
“I hope this is the last time we’re here talking about service cuts.” He said it is “counter-intuitive” for RIPTA to shrink its own services.
Attempts to reach RIPTA officials on Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful. Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s office ignored a request for comment.