Transit experts: North Main key to RI transit future

Looming RIPTA service cuts competed with street flooding, the potential for making Smithfield Avenue’s intersection with North Main two-way and a visionary future of bus or rail rapid transit for space on a crowded transit agenda at a meeting of Project committee members and transit experts Francisco Lovera of the RI Department of Transportation and Mark Therrien, assistant general manager of the RI Public Transportation Authority. Our thanks to Franciso and Mark and to Representative Gordon Fox and City Councilman Kevin Jackson, who both joined us.

As a result of this meeting, we will explore support and potential for making the Smithfield Avenue intersection two-way like other major connections along North Main and begin seeking action on chronic street flooding at the Third Street intersection. We also got a good primer on mass transit planning that we can draw on in future planning on North Main. In the short term, we also offered our support to protect current RIPTA service on North Main.

Francisco came with DOT data showing that the stretch of North Main Street just south of Smithfield Avenue carries 18,000 cars a day (in both directions). More than 900 cars turn from North Main onto the current one-way Smithfield Avenue connector between Blockbuster and Rite-Aid during the peak hour between 5 and 6 p.m. North Main as an essential arterial road, but would not oppose development or changes which would slow traffic as long as they did not impede it. One change not in the cards: striped bike lanes like those on Blackstone Boulevard.

Because North Main is a state road, the state DOT is responsible for maintenance and new construction on the street. Beginning In 2003, DOT implemented long-sought improvements to planting of the medians, sidewalk repaving, lighting and signal timing along North Main. The project included major and extremely well-received improvements to the design and traffic signal sequences at the extremely challenging intersections at Doyle (near University Heights) and Branch Ave/Cypress Ave (at the southern end of North Burial Ground). However, a plan to make the Smithfield Avenue intersection two-way was initiatially approved, but put on hold for unknown reasons according to member of the Summit Neighborhood Association board of directors active in the planning for that project. 

State Representative Gordon Fox agreed to look into whether DOT had conducted traffic engineering studies or designs for a change at North Main Street. City Councilman Jackson is ready to support a request for this change if wanted by the community. The North Main Street Project will canvass business owners and residents to see how they would view a change. The proposal would need to go to hearings before the state Traffic Commission before DOT could act. 

DOT is also responsible for what’s under North Main, including storm drains. Project reps noted that the corner of Third Street floods in every heavy downpour, threatening patrons at the Penalty Box with wet feet and evidently making the former child care facility next door impossible to use, according to Miriam Hospital which owns that building. The corner of Third forms the low spot catching all the runoff from the western side of the Summit neighborhood. Parking lots along North Main and at the top of Seventh Street add to the flooding as well as damage to paving on North Main and side streets. Rep. Fox also agreed to investigate whether DOT, the City or the Narragansett Bay Commission had primary responsibility for those storm drains so that we can seek mitigation.

Mark Therrien of RIPTA explained that the 99 bus route along North Main is one of four bus lines comprising a “through route” that stretches from Cranston to Pawtucket and carries 1.9 million passengers a year, one of RIPTA’s busiest lines. RIPTA is now participating in a new Metropolitan Transit Study, which will look at all transit alternatives for key routes, certainly including North Main. Among the possibilities, in order of cost:

  • Bus rapid transit expands the distance between stops and gives buses “signal priority” at intersections to speed trips to downtown destinations. Bus rapid transit has not gained much public support in the United States yet, although Ottawa, Canada, has a bus route that moves more people than a New York City subway line. Consumers may be won over with more branding and color-coding of routes, with attractive shelters and stops  and with ease of use through swipe cards and passes. These changes involve no investment in the roadway and relatively modest costs for signage, equipment and shelters.
  • Street cars use electric cars running on tracks embedded in the street. Light rail has proven very attractive to consumers and developers. However, the infrastructure cost of $10 million per mile puts projects into a long line for federal funding. Moreover, light rail cars have limits on size and frequency that might actually provide less carrying capacity and speed than current conventional bus lines.
  • Light rail is the transit mode of choice for hip and emerging communities like Portland, OR, but the up-front cost of $60 million per mile are daunting. Stil, in Portland and Atlanta, developers and aspiring property owners happily paid major tax premiums to build and be close to light rail lines.

All of these visionary futures will be on the table at the Metropolitan Transit Study, but we’re likely to see less service, not more, until Rhode Island fixes RIPTA’s immediae fiscal crisis. The spike in diesel costs drove our bus service into a $6 million ditch between January and now, according to Therrien. Service cuts, which will severely hurt lower-wage workers in Providence, are the only way to balance the short-term budget short of unlikely emergency infusions from the state. The popular North Main route is facing a loss of service after 7:00 p.m. under RIPTA’s proposed cuts. Many less traveled routes will be cut more deeply or shut down altogether.

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