Dwayne Keys is the volunteer chairperson of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, one of the member organizations of the Kennedy Plaza Resilience Coalition.
The proposal to move buses out of Kennedy Plaza, costing close to $30 million or more in taxpayer money, has sparked concerns among the people it’s supposed to serve.
Bus riders are stepping up because they cannot accept this sort of expensive project unless it’s actually worthwhile — it can’t be just a waste. We remember the much-hyped renovation of Kennedy Plaza that ended up shutting the plaza down for most of a year for results that were only a mixed bag.
Scrutiny is needed on the current proposal, which is to construct an entirely new main bus hub on Dorrance Street so that buses are moved out of Kennedy Plaza.
Support for the Dorrance plan has been exaggerated. After hearings held by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority in February and March, officials claimed the hearings showed “broad-based public support” for the proposal. The actual public response at the hearings included a large share of doubts and outright criticism, which news reports at the time showed.
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The only thing we are certain of is that a few politically connected downtown Providence real estate owners, who backed earlier ill-conceived plans to push buses out of Kennedy Plaza, would benefit from this project at public expense.
Officials said they wanted to earn back trust after pushing various harmful proposals in the past on Kennedy Plaza. We were told after the hearings that there would be a council of riders so that RIPTA users’ voices are heard throughout the process. That hasn’t happened yet.
How can Rhode Island ensure that this project’s big price tag – much of it borrowed at taxpayer expense – won’t be wasted? It’s best to listen to actual bus riders: they’re the people who care most about keeping it from being a waste, because they’re the ones who will be hurt if it ends up a net loss for transit.
Riders are working people and seniors, people of color, persons with disabilities, and students. We must not follow old racist patterns where those who need buses lose out while only a few benefit. If this project is built without first making sure that it earns the support of those bus riders, then once again taxpayer money is likely to go down the drain, and the vulnerable in society will be left to pay the price. Equity makes our state better.
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The financial stakes are much higher for Rhode Island than in past Kennedy Plaza projects that went bad. The project's funds would tap money that voters approved specifically for bus transit. So it must not damage the bus transit system. That would be especially dangerous in times of increasing climate change. Some version of a Dorrance Street hub could be worthwhile, but if riders don’t get a full say on the finished design, it won’t end well.
The Kennedy Plaza Resilience Coalition has started a campaign, “No HI-COST” – No Hub Ignoring Concerns of State’s Transit users. There should be an ongoing process of consulting with a council of riders about plans to move the state’s bus hub, including specifically after the proposed Dorrance hub is 100% designed but before a construction contract is issued for it.
The council should be made up of low- and middle-income people who actually ride the bus, not just people who have the option to drive, and the set of people on the council must be acceptable to rider groups that have expressed concerns.
If the Dorrance project turns out to be unacceptable to this rider council and to riders, the best course is to keep the bus hub in its central Kennedy Plaza location and make genuine improvements there for everyone.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: For Providence bus hub plan to succeed, it needs backing of riders