Dealing with transit issues in Rhode Island is a lot like riding a bike on a hilly road. To get to the top of each rise is a long haul and lots of work. While you are successful in reaching your immediate objective, you know there will be other hills to climb. But each one conquered gets you closer to your goal.
That is pretty much how transportation legislative efforts played out at this year’s session of the General Assembly. The Coalition for Transportation Choices (CTC), a partnership of 37 diverse public-advocacy groups, achieved two legislative victories at the 2010 session: winning the creation of a Senate Study Commission on Sustainable Transportation Funding and legislative support for federal funding for basic and innovative Rhode Island transportation projects.
A hill to climb in the next session of the General Assembly will be creating the Rhode Island Transportation Trust Fund, which failed to win approval this year. The CTC, along with more than a dozen advocates for funding alternatives, presented a show of force at State House hearings and let legislators know this is a challenge that will not go away and needs to be faced up to immediately.
The Study Commission on Sustainable Transportation Funding will delve deeper into the funding recommendations from Governor Carcieri’s 2008 Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation Funding. The report warns about the dire “consequences of inaction,” predicting a continued downward spiraling of our economy and forfeited opportunities. The report concludes that “We must act now, for if we do not, the future costs to rebuild our infrastructure, as well as the cost to our economy, will only be higher.” The ritual of proposed transit-fare increases and reduced service is once again emerging (as it is for most transit agencies across America) because of outdated and unsustainable funding mechanisms. Continued inaction is simply not an option.
On the bright side, there is a growing recognition by civic and business leaders that investments in transit and transportation infrastructure represent an opportunity to address multiple pressing issues that affect Rhode Island’s economic and environmental well-being.
There are many very positive ancillary impacts that would accompany improved transportation planning and funding, including:
• Putting people to work immediately in strengthening Rhode Island’s capacity for efficient and sustainable economic growth.
• Reducing the state’s dependence on oil, and retaining some of the estimated $1 billion that leaves Rhode Island each year for oil-producing regions.
• Mitigating climate change — the transportation sector is the leading source of climate-change pollution in the Northeast.
• Stemming the severe and accelerating deterioration of Rhode Island’s roads and bridges, which impedes economic development.
• Exploiting opportunities to more fully leverage and capitalize on private investments in our urban and town centers, contributing substantially to their continued revitalization, and reducing the public subsidy of sprawl and inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.
Rhode Islanders are fortunate that significant planning is already done or now under way for vastly improving transportation. This includes the recently completed Metropolitan Transit Enhancement Study, the Aquidneck Island Transportation Study and a nascent study of transportation improvements by officials in the densely populated Blackstone Valley corridor. These studies position the state well to take advantage of new federal funding opportunities. But they must be acted on right now to maximize the edge they afford.
Rhode Island is also fortunate to have civic, business and institutional leaders, such as Ed Cooney of Nortek, Dick Spies of Brown University and Tom Magliocchetti of Rhode Island Hospital, who are spearheading Providence Mayor David Cicilline’s vision for improved public transit in Greater Providence. GTECH and Blue Cross have given transit issues a boost with consolidated operations in downtown, choosing to subsidize bus passes — instead of parking spaces — for their employees. As a result, nearly 50 percent of Blue Cross employees commute to work on clean, efficient and low-cost public transportation. And Textron’s John Rupp is in the driver’s seat at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, leading the agency as its chairman and preparing it to become Rhode Island’s “mobility manager.”
With the successes of this year’s legislative session, Rhode Island is building momentum for a transportation strategy that will move us to a more sustainable and shared prosperity. Yet more steep hills remain to be climbed to change old conventions and achieve a 21st Century transportation system for Rhode Island. Dozens of groups and civic leaders have joined since the CTC began this ride. In the coming year, the Rhode Island General Assembly will decide whether the state will get on the road to sustainable transportation.
Sheila Dormody is Rhode Island director of Clean Water Action. John Flaherty is the director of research and communications for Grow Smart Rhode Island. They are co-chairpersons of the Coalition for Transportation Choices ( www.rictc.org).