Groups call for big investments in transit; here's what some candidates for governor think

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A group of 36 civic and advocacy groups have called on Rhode Island’s candidates for governor to embrace “bold changes to bring our state’s transportation infrastructure into the 21st century.”

The changes range from making the Department of Transportation less auto-centric to electrifying the MBTA‘s Providence Line to analyzing construction projects for climate impact to setting aside money for plowing snow from sidewalks and bike lanes.

“Rhode Island’s outdated transportation system is failing to keep pace with the needs of our residents, our economy and our planet,” said the letter to candidates from groups, including GrowSmart RI, RI Transit Riders and the Working Families Party. “We believe that Rhode Islanders deserve a transportation system that provides for their diverse mobility needs, reduces air pollution, improves local economic development, supports affordable housing development and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.”

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The biggest asks in the letter are that the governor sworn in next January commit to fully funding the state’s Transit Master Plan and Bicycle Mobility Plan

How much would that cost? 

Transit Master Plan cost estimates

GrowSmart Deputy Director John Flaherty, who is on the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee, estimates that the state is spending around $163 million annually ($138 million of that in operations and $25 million in infrastructure) on projects identified in the Transit Master Plan

To fully fund the plan, he said the state would need to more than double that to around $389 million per year ($234 million operations and $155 capital.)

Bicycle Mobility Plan annual spending 

On bicycle-specific projects, Flaherty estimates that annual spending would need to nearly triple to around $300 million per year to meet the goals of the Bicycle Mobility Plan.  

Some Democrats respond

Here is how some of the Democratic primary candidates responded to the letter:

Matt Brown

Matt Brown: “There is no addressing the climate crisis without making significant investments in our transit infrastructure,” the former Rhode Island secretary of state wrote in an email. “I will fully fund the Transit Master Plan in my 2024 budget, adjusting the funding sources given the newly available federal infrastructure funds.”

Brown said if elected he would replace DOT Director Peter Alviti Jr. with someone who “will improve mass-transit, walkability, and bikeability in our state; expanding RIPTA routes, ensuring more frequent buses, electrifying the bus fleet, and making RIPTA free [and] ending the bans on multi-family homes across Rhode Island.”

Nellie Gorbea

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea wrote that she is “committed to fully implementing these plans starting with the [2023-2024 state] budget” and will “identify new and existing sources of revenue … to fund the programs and projects found in these plans over the long-term.”

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Beyond the transit master plan, Gorbea wrote that her goals would include making RIPTA fares “more affordable and interchangeable across transit systems;” improving express bus service; encouraging transit-oriented development and exploring light rail and bus rapid transit.

She went further in a Tuesday evening candidate forum hosted by the Environment Council of Rhode Island saying she would “reinvent” the DOT and “if you are a senior and you want to walk somewhere you should be able to do it safely.”

Dan McKee

Gov. Dan McKee’s campaign spokeswoman Alana O’Hare didn’t address transit master plan spending specifically, but said he “will continue to commit necessary resources to advance key transportation infrastructure-related issues.”

She noted that McKee continues to support the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the stalled regional transportation fuel charge plan that is one of the requests of the coalition letter.

“Governor McKee recently launched, through the state Office of Energy Resources, an electric vehicle car rebate incentive program, and is preparing to file a state electric vehicle charging infrastructure plan,” O’Hare added. “The Governor’s enacted budget includes $23 million in federal funding to build out that infrastructure.”

Helena Buonanno Foulkes

Helena Buonanno Foulkes did not respond to requests for comment.

However, at an environmental forum on Tuesday, Foulkes had no criticism of the direction or priorities of the DOT.

She said the state should “completely reinvent the public transportation system” and offered examples of sending more Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses to the Quonset business park from Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket and making buses easier for people with disabilities to use.

Groups that signed the letter  

The organizations that signed the letter include: American Planning Association – Rhode Island Chapter, Acadia Center, Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, Bike Newport, Clean Water Action, Environmental Council of Rhode Island, George Wiley Center, Housing Works Rhode Island, Latino Policy Institute, Providence Student Union, Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, Rhode Island Transit Riders, Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council and the Working Families Party Rhode Island.

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