December 5, 2009

A Process of Suffocation

Justin Katz

The relationship is perhaps not entirely direct, but two stories from last Saturday's paper strike me as thematically related. First:

Because of poor design and construction and lack of maintenance, the underground parking garage at the Providence railroad station has suffered so much structural damage caused by leaking water that the state Department of Transportation says it might have to be closed.

The 360-space garage is a key transportation facility whose importance is likely to increase. It's the most convenient station parking and is full of commuters' cars on weekdays. The station will see more use, and presumably need more parking, when the state extends rail service south of Providence over the next two years.

At a time when Rhode Island desperately needs to ensure smooth sailing for the economy, public transportation infrastructure is crumbling. And second:

The head of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority's biggest union has threatened a strike if state officials remove binding arbitration, a mechanism for settling deadlocked contract disputes, from state law governing the authority. ...

RIPTA officials said that the possibility of eliminating binding arbitration for RIPTA employees came up at a meeting of a legislative committee looking into the authority's operations. RIPTA officials said they were asked to take the issue before the authority board of directors. The legislators suggested that RIPTA request that arbitration be removed from the authority's enabling legislation.

Even just a hint that officials might be considering the possibility of potentially revisiting binding arbitration sparked threats of the union's nuclear option. (Gee, that binding arbitration thing must really not be in a union's interests!)

In sum: During the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, with the state kept solvent merely through the ill-advised deficit spending of a radical U.S. president, as our transportation infrastructure falls apart under our desperate feet, public sector unions have their eye firmly focused on their own grubby hands. Rhode Island can't afford to tolerate this extortion and abuse any longer.

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A better solution: sell off RIPTA to a private company; to make the deal economically viable, allow the new company to hire non-union employees and negotiate a new union contract on a non-exclusive, open-shop basis.

The state would raise $millions, employees of the new RIPTA would be better off, and thanks to the magic of the free markets invisible hand, so would RIPTA's customers.

Of course, it would take political courage to do this.

Posted by: BobN at December 5, 2009 9:48 AM

You seem to get it. Perhaps you should have a talk with Andrew, who seems to think coddling and protecting these union pigs from the harsh criticism they deserve, is the way to go.
Like I said,(and Andrew had removed) dealing with these union pigs is like dealing with the Palestinians - it ain't gonna happen! While only slightly harsh, it's entirely accurate.

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at December 5, 2009 10:19 AM

--"Because of poor design and construction and lack of maintenance ..."

Just like the Sakonnet River Bridge.

Deferred maintenance to the point of requiring replacement -- just like bridges and roads throughout RI. Even as the usual contractors are lavished with money to relocate 195 and various other "new" projects that are deferrable and/or "new" projects to replace what would have lasted longer had it been properly maintained.

Is it paranoid to believe that this isn't coincidental, but is intentional?

We are talking about Rhode Island after all, where state government does virtually nothing well, and for which what can't be attributed to incompetence can be attributed to corruption, and vice-versa, and both.

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at December 5, 2009 2:15 PM

OK, Mike I tell the entire world the entirely accurate and harsh truths they need to hear Cappelli, why don't you tell us in all your brilliance that none of the rest of us can see, how you'd deal with the unions and the Palestinians. And remember, since your comparison is "entirely accurate", whatever method you apply to one, you have to apply to the other.

Posted by: Andrew at December 5, 2009 4:30 PM


Why do we have to sell the entity to the private sector? Shouldn't we be allowed to follow your plan, sans the sale?

Shouldn't the state be allowed to put out "we're hiring" signs and hire all new non-Union employees that would be happy to work, albeit at a cost that is sustainable to the public?

Bottom line, once again all things bad in RI ultimately derive from the tolerance of Union [snip].

Your spot-on suggestion of becoming a Right-to-Work state couldn't be implemented fast enough in my view.

Let's keep our fingers crossed that the EP School Committee prevails despite the mountain of roadblocks that Bob Walsh & Co have erected over the years.

Posted by: George Elbow at December 5, 2009 6:07 PM

The garage story reminds me of the Boston Common Underground Parking Gargage.

I think that was built in the 1960's. The short of the story is that after it was completed, it was found that the dirt excavated had disappeared. After a 30 year, nationwide, search it was found that a local judge had obtained the dirt and had used it to build a marina in South Boston. Of course, by then he was retired and living in Florida, too old to prosecute. Kind of makes you wonder. Or, does it?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 5, 2009 6:09 PM

Garage failure due to "Poor design and construction". All criticism in this blog has been aimed at poor construction, no one mentioned the lousy design. I wonder why such one sided criticisms? After all, poor design dooms even the best constructed project to failure.

Let's look at the problem with both eyes. That way, we might get to a solution.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at December 5, 2009 8:08 PM

Poor design may be a consequence of back-room dealing. Whatever the case, once it's designed in, and then once the thing is poorly constructed, the main consequence is that it requires increased maintenance.

Nobody here is going to argue with you that RI's system is rotten through and through.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 5, 2009 8:12 PM


If you notice in the commentary that the top level was actually under the City of Providence purview and maintenance which over the 20 some odd or more years the City of Providence did not perform due to lack of funding.

The last time I parked in the garage to purchase a train ticket I found it damp and foreboding.

When I was at the RI Department of Administration the parking lot gates were not opened till after 9 AM because train commuters were parking in state parking lots forcing employees out on to the streets. Nobody really wanted to park in that garage back then!

Water is a nasty design, construction and maintenance equalizer especially with concrete and steel.

“Gilbane Building Co. built the garage in the mid-1980s as part of the Capital Center Project. “Twenty five years is a long period of time. When we handed it over, it was fine,” a company spokesman said. But given the situation, he said, “‘No comment’ is the best thing for us to do.”” RIGHT!!

“At ground level on top of that, above the garage and adjacent to the railroad station, are city streets, Park Row and Park Row West, surrounding a pedestrian plaza whose concrete is crumbling. That’s apparently the city’s responsibility.

Meyers wants the city to make repairs above the garage. “The city is responsible for repairing it, and it never has been repaired,” he said. The city government agrees, up to a point.

“That is city property, and the city is responsible for maintaining it,” said Alix Ogden, the city’s director of operations. “We know the scope of the issues, and we’re looking for funding for it.”

However, she said, “The city doesn’t have taxpayer dollars to put forward to that.””

Concrete has some funny properties depending how it is mixed, amount of time before pour, amount of installed reinforcing rebar, temperature and how much water exposed to during cure.

Water will follow a path of least resistance and erode or invade freeze during winter expanding cracks over time thus allowing water seepage by opening cracks!


Posted by: Ken at December 6, 2009 1:04 AM

That's an easy one. Owning a business that provides transportation services, presumably at a profit, is not a legitimate function of government as the founders of this state and this country defined our government.

Doing so at a designed-in financial loss is ever worse, as it means the government is taking money by force from one group of citizens (taxpayers) in order to give it to another group (unionized employees and bus riders) in order to gain political support from the favored groups.

Posted by: BobN at December 6, 2009 3:08 PM

Oh yes, another reason for the sale: it would recover for the taxpayers at least some of the money they had been putting into it. Also, merely reorganizing the existing operation under government ownership might bring in some money but it wouldn't be nearly as profitable under bureaucratic management as it could be if led by profit-maximizing entrepreneurs.

It amazes me that for most people the default solution for almost any social problem is government action. Why people would trust politicians and bureaucrats more than they would trust their neighbors is a mystery.

Posted by: BobN at December 6, 2009 3:11 PM
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