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.