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Can’t we fix RIPTA?

July 30, 2011

A compact state like Rhode Island ought to be the perfect place to build a public bus system. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay says it is long past the time to make the Rhode Island Public Transit System work.

Every expert agrees that Rhode Island needs a strong public transportation network to be successful in the 21st Century. Our state has decent job in running a modern airport, fixing roads and rerouting the interstate highways that once cut Providence off from its Narragansett Bay waterfront heritage. We have expanded and upgraded train service through our state. The top of the bay has been dredged to enhance boat traffic to the capital city. We have even built scenic bike paths along abandoned railroad tracks.

Yet, once again, again our public bus system is facing what has become a desultory and dreary annual crisis. There is yet another projected deficit   that has Rhode Islanders debating cuts to RIPTA bus routes for some of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

RIPTA is considering slashing up to 10 percent of its service affecting routes in 35 communities. These reductions would hurt our disabled citizens, who receive transit service if they live near a bus route. Any cutbacks of RIPTA service will affect city residents more than those who live in rural areas because the bus service is concentrated where the population is most dense, in such places as Providence, Pawtucket and East Providence.

Past the threats of trimming service have led state and federal governments to loosen the purse strings and come up more money. Now, with Washington a dysfunctional mess and state government on a serious austerity program, these cupboards are bare.

Does anyone have a suggestion for financial support for RIPTA that doesn’t rely on the gas tax?

The gas tax was a fine way of financing public transportation when it was a stable source of money. Those days are over; gas prices have soared and Rhode Islanders are driving less. And the newer cars are getting better mileage.

Raising the gas tax is not a prudent way of coaxing more money from recession-racked Rhode Islanders. This is especially so in our small state; most of our population lives near Massachusetts, where the gas tax is a dime a gallon less than ours.

What RIPTA must finally face is the bloated, poorly managed and patronage-clotted bureaucracy it has become. Some drivers earn $100,000 a year, according to administration sources. Overtime costs approach $6 million a year, says a RIPTA report. Too many routes have not been changed in too many years. Why is it so difficult to fashion routes that can bring Rhode Island Hospital employees from their homes in East Providence to their work in Providence?

Governor Chafee’s administration appears to take these challenges seriously. He has recently appointed new members to the RIPTA board, including Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian. Avedesian says he was astounded to discover the driver salaries and that RIPTA had nearly 900 workers, or more than the city of Warwick employs outside the school department.

We are in an era of energy shortages that require Rhode Islanders to find travel alternatives to the automobile. So why can’t a tiny state that you can drive across in 45 minutes without breaking the scarcely obeyed speed limits devise a bus system that serves us well without breaking the bank?


Scott MacKay’s commentary airs every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political reporting at the `On Politics’ Blog that he co-authors with WRNI’s Ian Donnis at








One Comment leave one →
  1. August 1, 2011 1:09 pm

    Even if RIPTA were truly still a “bloated, poorly managed and patronage-clotted bureaucracy” (which an audit ordered by the General Assembly showed was not the case, anymore), once those issues were addressed, it would still need income of some sort. No public transit agency in the country funds itself entirely at the farebox. So, if as you point out, the diminishing gas-tax is no longer a reliable source of revenue for the agency (or for RIDOT for that matter), we still need to identify a new stable funding source.

    Blaming RIPTA will not get us the transit system we require for a 21st century economy.

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