Supporters of a bill that will provide funding for RIPTA services filled the rotunda at the State House last Thursday afternoon as Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and others urged citizens to reach out to legislators for support.
“It is important that we have the resources we need,” said Avedisian, chairperson of RIPTA’s board of directors. He added that passing this legislation and providing the valuable funding could “bring a new day and a new era to transportation in Rhode Island.”
House Bill 5073, also known as the O’Grady Bill, would turn the current highway maintenance fund in to the Rhode Island Highway Maintenance and Public Transit Trust Fund, providing 35 percent of the fund to RIPTA for maintaining, enhancing and/or expanding their service.
The remaining 65 percent of the fund would be given to the department of transportation for highway maintenance.
“It’s a gradual funding from transportation funds in the general budget,” explained Representative K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick), who is supportive of the bill and providing for RIPTA.
If the bill were to pass, beginning on July 1, 20 percent of the fees collected in fiscal year 2013 by the Department of Motor Vehicles, including annual and biennial registration fees and license renewal fees, would go to the fund. That percentage would grow each subsequent fiscal year until 2017, when 100 percent of fees would go to the fund.
Avedisian estimates that RIPTA would receive an additional $5 million to $6 million this year should the legislation pass.
This bill comes as a result of RIPTA’s recent financial struggles. A portion of the state’s gasoline tax funds the organization significantly, but as gasoline prices rise, more and more Rhode Islanders turn to mass transit and RIPTA funding drops.
“The big issue we have is that the gas tax [revenues] is dropping,” said Avedisian. “Expenses are being driven up and revenues are going down.”
Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady is the lead sponsor of the bill and this will be his third time sponsoring a bill of this nature.
“Our transportation system is just that: a system. While highways are an important element of that system, they are not the only element. So, too, is our public transportation provider. The RIDE program, which provides a lifeline to our elderly and disabled communities is a third,” said O’Grady in an e-mail.
O’Grady added that, statewide, RIPTA provides 50,000 Rhode Islanders with rides to work each day, taking potentially 50,000 cars off of the roads.
“This decreases wear and tear on those roads, reduces pollution and reduces traffic congestion. These reasons, particularly the reduction of vehicles on our already stressed roadways, show how RIPTA and DOT work together as two sides of the same coin and why it is only right that we fund them together,” said O’Grady.
He added that bill provides an increase in funding to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation as well as RIPTA, which would allow for bridge and highway maintenance.
Paul Harrington spoke at Thursday’s rally on behalf of the RIPTA Union.
“No one knows how much public transit means to people more than I do,” said Harrington. “[Passing this bill] will provide a better quality of life for citizens of Rhode Island.”
In his remarks to the crowd at the State House, Avedisian said RIPTA ridership had grown 12 percent from 2010 to 2012, showing that the system is used and deserves support and funding.
Shekarchi said this legislation is good because it provides long-term planning.
“The state seems to be doing less long-term planning, but we need to do long-term planning for RIPTA,” said the representative. “We need RIPTA to have a funding mechanism.”
Representative Teresa Tanzi (D- Narragansett, South Kingston), who co-sponsors the bill, agrees that RIPTA needs to be supported in the long-term. As a resident of South County, Tanzi says she sees firsthand the importance of the public transit system and knows support is necessary.
“We need a comprehensive system and until we sustain it, we are on life support,” said Tanzi.
While O’Grady could not say that this bill would prevent cuts in RIPTA service, he said it’s passing could not hurt.
“Without adequate and predictable funding, RIPTA will continue to be caught in a constant cycle of reactive annual cost-cutting instead of focusing on long-term system improvements to increase both efficiency and service adequacy,” said O’Grady.
During a phone interview on Friday, Shekarchi was unsure about the bill’s future.
“I don’t know the chances of it passing,” admitted Shekarchi, “but it seems to be growing in support.”
O’Grady said that the need to support RIPTA is “real, obvious and not going away.” He added that a stable infrastructure is needed to take advantage of our state’s northeast corridor and proximity to markets.
“Rhode Island does not have a wealth of natural resources to attract businesses,” said O’Grady. “This bill provides a clear pathway toward stabilized transportation infrastructure.”
A hearing before the House Finance Committee occurred on April 30 but the bill was held for further study. The O’Grady bill is the only bill that addresses RIPTA’s budget issues and speakers at the rally urged citizens to contact legislators and ask them to support this legislation.