Public transit ‘lifeline’ faces deep cuts in R.I.

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BRISTOL, R.I. — Nils Berg rides the No. 60 bus to work religiously. In summer, he takes it south from Bristol to Newport; in winter, he rides it north to Providence. Working in the state’s seasonal hospitality industry, the father of two often doesn’t get off work until midnight.

But under a plan by Rhode Island’s public transit agency to reduce service to help close a multimillion-dollar budget hole, his bus would no longer operate after 10 p.m., including on both weekend days, starting in September. Any change, he says, would be devastating — not just because he’d be left stranded, but because businesses could lose some of the late-night clientele they rely on.

“This is vital for a business owner,” Berg said at a recent public hearing in Bristol on the proposed cuts, before dashing off to catch the bus. “You cut out a bus schedule, and you are hurting businesses in Newport.”

The impact of the proposed service cuts by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority — which would affect the vast majority of the state’s communities and 39 of its 54 fixed routes — is more than just an inconvenience. In a state with the third-highest unemployment in the nation — behind Nevada and California — the trims, along with any future ones, could hamstring an already struggling economy.

“Public transportation actually subsidizes most small businesses,” said Charles Odimgbe, RIPTA’s chief executive officer, who has called the proposed cuts “painful.”

“It is an economic catalyst for any community,” he said.

The American Public Transportation Association says a $1 billion investment in public transportation means 36,000 created or saved jobs, and that for every $1 invested in public transit, $4 is generated in returns. One typical measure of a state’s business-friendliness is its transportation infrastructure.

Key for commuters

Public transit also, of course, gets people to their jobs. According to APTA, nearly 60 percent of transit trips are to the workplace.

A study released in May by the Brookings Institution found a disconnect between public transportation and job accessibility, with the “typical” metropolitan resident able to reach about 30 percent of the jobs in his or her area by transit in 90 minutes.

Grouped together, Providence, New Bedford and Fall River ranked 59th out of 100 metropolitan areas on accessibility of jobs. The most accessible area was Honolulu; the least was Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Under RIPTA’s proposed cuts, still subject to the board’s approval, some routes would be eliminated altogether. Some would operate less frequently. Service from several Park ’n’ Ride locations would be scrapped. Holiday service would be discontinued. Some beach service is also on the chopping block — even though officials say demand far outstrips capacity on some buses.

Stephen Hourahan, a senior adviser to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, said that in devising the list of proposed cuts, Rhode Island tried to protect lines with high numbers of commuters to major employers. Separately, the state will begin a study to determine where service is most needed, and whether the system is carrying people to their destinations in the most efficient way.

The cuts, whatever shape they ultimately take, are being forced by simple economics. RIPTA faces a $4.1 million deficit for the current fiscal year, due primarily to the rising cost of fuel to operate its fleet and a flattening of revenue from the gas tax since fewer gallons of gas are being purchased, presumably due to higher gas prices. The system also no longer has federal stimulus funds to close any gap.

Those are problems transit agencies across the country are facing against the backdrop of the Great Recession. By one survey, more than 80 percent of U.S. transit systems had cut service, raised fares or both since the downturn began.

While fare increases help — and RIPTA raised fares last year — transit officials say the state needs a different funding source, or it will have to continue to cut service. Being reliant on the gas tax brings a public policy Catch 22: When fewer people drive, because of high gas prices, environmental concerns or other reasons, the transit agency gets less money, in turn forcing cutbacks in service — when there is a demand for more.

Odimgbe said public transit is a lifeline for what he called the “working poor.” The Brookings study noted that lower-income residents rely on public transit more than workers on average, at least in metropolitan areas.