RIPTA isn’t broken, it’s chronically underfunded

Now is the time for the governor and legislative leaders to act

October 17, 2023 4:59 am

Rhode Island Public Transit Authority route 63 is shown at a stop on Broadway in Newport. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

The evidence has long been known that high-quality public transit is an invaluable public good. In thriving, healthy communities across America and around the globe, public transit facilitates economic development, downtown and neighborhood revitalization, equitable access to opportunity and social cohesion. States and metro regions are now increasingly leveraging transit to reduce traffic emissions, meet urgent climate goals and boost production of housing near transit that’s more affordable in part because families can reduce the number of cars they need.

RIPTA board votes down Alviti’s call for new subcommittee in split vote

That’s why it’s so disconcerting that Rhode Island is being held back by some on the RIPTA Board who perpetuate a decades-old practice of undermining public confidence in our transit agency. On Oct. 10, RIPTA’s board of directors voted down a proposal by chairman Peter Alviti to create a new performance review subcommittee made up of three members, all of whom would be appointed by Alviti. We support the board’s decision.

The power struggle that continues for control of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) is misguided at best and is based on a false narrative that RIPTA’s management is to blame for the fiscal cliff that it faces.

New funding sources are needed to resolve the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s projected fiscal cliff in FY 2025. (RIPTA presentation to
Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight, March 6, 2023)

This fiscal cliff threatens most other transit agencies across the nation, as federal aid to support revenue losses that were incurred due to the pandemic are exhausted.
RIPTA may be among the most scrutinized public agencies in Rhode Island. Between 2002 and 2023, there have been numerous fiscal reviews and performance audits commissioned by previous governors, good government groups and the General Assembly. And the conclusions of these reviews have largely been the same – that RIPTA is generally well run and outperforms its peers in almost every key performance indicator.

Something else they all point out: The agency has been chronically underfunded for years.

According to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, Rhode Island ranks among the lowest in 2021 per capita state funding for transit at approximately $19 per person, especially when compared with other urbanized states in our region, including Connecticut ($68), Delaware ($101), Pennsylvania ($120), New Jersey ($143), Maryland ($199) and Massachusetts ($239).

Still, RIPTA provides more trips, across a larger area, at a more effective cost-per-trip than transit agencies serving similar populations anywhere in America.

What’s more, the agency has developed a bold, data-driven and publicly vetted vision and master plan for vastly improving service that will get more people where they’re going more conveniently, affordably and with dignity. That plan is now almost three years old with very little state commitment to its implementation.

To be clear, no one is opposed to efficiency and accountability. We should always be seeking continual improvement and efficiencies. But we must stop fiddling while Rome burns. Left unaddressed, the fiscal cliff will mean devastating service cuts, disrupting tens of thousands of lives, many businesses and putting our economy at risk. And, a failure to aggressively implement the Transit Master Plan will represent a major missed economic, environmental and public health opportunity for Rhode Island.

So let’s get on with addressing the fiscal cliff, as other states are already doing, and finally press ahead with implementing the improvements outlined in the Transit Master Plan.



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Scott Wolf
Scott Wolf

Scott Wolf is executive director of Grow Smart RI.

John Flaherty
John Flaherty

John Flaherty is deputy director of Grow Smart RI and a member of the RI Transit Riders.