Rhode Island Throws Good Money After Bad

Thanks to bad planning on the part of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, a handful of commuters are getting free rides on commuter trains for the rest of the year. In 2012, the state opened new commuter rail stations and started service between Wickford Junction and Providence, with trains going on to Boston, at a cost of $50 million (half of which came from the federal New Starts program).

Wickford Junction’s $25 million train station and parking garage. RIDOT photo.

A large chunk of the money went to build an 1,100-space, four-story parking garage in Wickford Junction. The state was counting on the claims made by so many other cities that rail transit (with a little help to developers such as parking garages) would stimulate new development.

It didn’t turn out that way, however. Not only did the new development not happen, train ridership was well below projections, which the state partly blamed on the lack of that new development. As a result, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the trains, billed Rhode Island millions of dollars to account for the difference between collected fares and the costs of running the trains.

The failure of this commuter line didn’t stopped Rhode Island from spending even more millions extending the line to Pawtucket. Now, under the apparent theory that it is losing money so it might as well lose a little more, the state has eliminated the $3.50 fares it was charging for in-state riders, such as those going from Wickford to Providence. Passengers going to Boston still have to pay the $9 fare.

“Making it free for a period of time will make more people aware of this great service and provide them an opportunity try it and use it on a regular basis,” says Rhode Island’s DOT director, Peter Alviti, Jr. The money to cover the lost fares is coming from–you guessed it–the federal government, apparently out of the Congestion/Mitigation Air Quality fund even though the trains aren’t likely to relieve congestion or improve air quality.

“Rhode Island ranks on the bottom when it comes to the percentage of travelers who use transit as opposed to cars,” admits Alviti. Maybe the state should have just accepted that and saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

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13 thoughts on “Rhode Island Throws Good Money After Bad

  1. Henry Porter

    What a pity it is that the CMAQ program does not live up to its expectations. The money is often spent on feel good projects that actually contribute to air pollution and congestion. CMAQ funds have been propping up the failed Downeaster train, between Maine and Boston, for 15 years.

    If there is one program that should rise to the top of federal highway programs that should be mercifully ended, the CMAQ program is it.

  2. Not Sure

    When I signed up with Directv after my recent move, they included HBO/Showtime/etc. at no cost for the first three months. I’m sure they hope that after getting it for free, I’ll be happy to start paying for it.

  3. Henry Porter

    Think of free fares as an experiment. It tells you how many people value service at zero vs. how many value it at, in this case, $3.50. Those who ride when it’s free but not when there is a nominal fare, value the service at zero…worthless.

    Now think about this. All the people who don’t ride transit, even when it’s free, place a value of less than zero. The expression, “You couldn’t pay me enough….” comes to mind.

    Time and again, transit agencies are offering a costly service to a public that doesn’t want it, even when it’s free! If you’re a sane business person, you stop losing money producing something you can’t even give away. But, if you’re a transit business person, you simply apply for more government subsidies.

  4. prk166

    What does this cost to operate? IIRC the projected costs for Minnesota’s Metro Transit’s Northstar line were around $900,000 / year for buses on the route ( with 80% fare recovery! ) versus $3.3 million for the train ( revenues projected to be the same as bus ).

    It would seem the ongoing problem is that instead of pull the plug on the train and replacing it with buses that can operate at 1/4 of the cost, they’re sticking to their guns on something that isn’t likely to ever work. Rhode Island’s population is aging fast and it’s bleeding young people.

    http://www.planning.ri.gov/documents/census/tp162.pdf

  5. prk166

    Just a side note, if I tell google i want to go from Wickford Junction to Boston, and do it by train, it sends me down the road to an Amtrack station. Maybe that’s because its the weekend? Or maybe it’s faster than taking this Rhode Island train?

    https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Boston,+Massachusetts/Wickford+Junction,+North+Kingstown,+RI+02852/@41.9223363,-71.8588752,9z/am=t/data=!3m1!4b1!4m14!4m13!1m5!1m1!1s0x89e3652d0d3d311b:0x787cbf240162e8a0!2m2!1d-71.0588801!2d42.3600825!1m5!1m1!1s0x89e5b6a7bb108a91:0x9c8525cf87c1f381!2m2!1d-71.4914674!2d41.5808853!5i1

  6. the highwayman

    What if there wasn’t so much “free” parking? What if people had to pay for every mile that they drove? Drive 5 miles, pay $10. Property taxes could be less then too. :$

  7. msetty

    the highwayman:
    What if there wasn’t so much “free” parking? What if people had to pay for every mile that they drove? Drive 5 miles, pay $10. Property taxes could be less then too. :$

    highwayman, you’re thinking logically. So why are you wasting too much time here?

    Last time I checked, the price elasticity for gasoline prices was still around -0.15, e.g., a doubling of fuel prices nominally would reduce usage by 15% with no other factors involved (not a realistic situation, but a good thought experiment nonetheless). Since gasoline prices fell roughly 40% in 2015 through the present, driving would nominally increase 5%-6%. Recent growth in AADT explained, as are declines in usage of relatively non-competitive bus systems during the past few years, prompting some people to buy cars. Main factor, nothing else really.

    If future per-mile charges were $0.10 per mile, you’d see a longer-term decline of at least 5% in driving. This may not seem like a lot, but it is in the right direction. Even better would be to cover the full cost of “free” (sic) parking by charging it directly to the act of driving, this would add about $500 billion/year to the overall cost of driving.

    This would be the equivalent of increasing average gasoline prices of currently about $2.50 to nearly $6.00 per gallon, leading to a long-term decline of at least 20% in driving, mostly in metro areas, so impact would be larger than impact on all miles driven (e.g., rural mileage would not be significantly impacted; it would cost a lot more to collect the $0.25 value of stopping on the side of some rural road somewhere, so not worth the trouble). Under such circumstances, private operation of transit would actually make some sense, though probably not “coverage” transit as defined by Jarrett Walker, and paratransit, but that is another subject).

    And like The Antiplanner, I also generally favor congestion pricing, particularly in congested metro areas, which would swing the economics in favor of transit and other alternatives to driving far more than he thinks they would, but that’s another tangent, too.

  8. Frank

    “Drive 5 miles, pay $10. Property taxes could be less then too. :$

    highwayman, you’re thinking logically. So why are you wasting too much time here?”

    Yes, it’s soooo logical to charge $2 a mile to drive.

    To a rabid anti-automobile government-worshiping statist with a choo choo train fixation who lives in his mom’s basement or his sister’s house.

  9. prk166


    And like The Antiplanner, I also generally favor congestion pricing, particularly in congested metro areas, which would swing the economics in favor of transit and other alternatives to driving far more than he thinks they would, but that’s another tangent, too.
    ” ~msetty

    First off, Andrew or highwaygender or whomever isn’t here for civil discourse. He/she/it posts for the sole purpose of being a ginormous twat running around, decorating the comments with their bullshit. They’re not here for discussion.

    As for the pricing, I suspect I’m in the same ball park as you and Mr. O’Toole. I want things to be priced according to what they cost including the value of the moment. So that does means congestion pricing and other tools beyond the antique gas tax.

  10. the highwayman

    Government is anti-rail, roads are not expected to be profitable to survive.

    Railways are a thing that “Planners” would like to see disappear. :$

  11. prk166


    And like The Antiplanner, I also generally favor congestion pricing, particularly in congested metro areas, which would swing the economics in favor of transit and other alternatives to driving far more than he thinks they would, but that’s another tangent, too.
    ” ~msetty

    First off, Andrew or highwaygender or whomever isn’t here for civil discourse. He/she/it posts for the sole purpose of being a ginormous twat running around, decorating the comments with their bullshit. They’re not here for discussion.

    As for the pricing, I suspect I’m in the same ball park as you and Mr. O’Toole. I want things to be priced according to what they cost including the value of the moment. So that does means congestion pricing and other tools beyond the antique gas tax.

  12. the highwayman

    “Highways are there regardless of economic conditions.” -Randal O’Toole

    Mr.O’Toole has actually agreed with me.

    Capitalism is a myth! :$

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