December 14, 2009

Taking Rhode Island for a Ride

Justin Katz

Because — honestly — I'd love to see a successful and commuter- and visitor-friendly public transportation system in Rhode Island, it was encouraging to read the headline, "Public transit is en route to bright, diverse future," above the following first paragraph:

After a near-collapse, public transit in Rhode Island is making a dramatic turnaround, with some supporters saying its prospects haven't seemed better in recent memory.

One must get to the final paragraph of Bruce Landis's story, however, before it's possible to fully understand what's changed:

An open question, however, is how to pay for it all. The RIPTA officials who put the plan together say they have identified sources for about 10 percent of the money.

There hasn't been an upsurge in passengers (due to changing priorities or employment landscapes). There hasn't even been a huge windfall of magic Obama money, although the RI General Assembly did increase taxes on behalf of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA). Rereading the story in light of the ending, all that's changed, in essence, is that RIPTA has picked up some allies in the effort to extort more money from what remains of Rhode Island's productive sector.

If big plans and no notion of how to finance them were happy news, the story of my life would have a glistening title.

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I would love to use RIPTA every day but my commute into downtown Providence by car is 20 minutes. By RIPTA, including the walking and driving my car to the bus, is 45 mins, if everything is on time. And that's on a packed bus where you don't get a seat for the first half of the ride home.

I've lived in cities where it's more of a hassle to have a car and just use the public transportation. It's just not the same in this state. I'm not sure why as the NY Metro or the Boston T don't cover areas that much smaller than RIPTA.

Posted by: Patrick at December 14, 2009 1:51 PM

Be careful what you wish for. The MBTA in Massachusetts literally runs jam-packed subway trains and buses every day, has increased its base admission price to $2.00 (a whopping $3.50 for express), and despite the staggering amount of money it must be raking in still requires around 2/3 of its budget to be subsidized by taxpayers each year. A budget which has been steadily increasing each year as well.

There is no limit to the waste, mismanagement, and corruption government can bring to even the most popular and lucrative of public programs.

Posted by: Dan at December 14, 2009 2:34 PM

"An open question, however, is how to pay for it all. The RIPTA officials who put the plan together say they have identified sources for about 10 percent of the money."

Huh?? How is that a "dramatic turnaround"? Pretty darned misleading headline and lead.

Posted by: Monique at December 14, 2009 4:38 PM

As usual, the correct answer is simple: Get government out of the for-profit transportation service industry and look to the free market.

We need the state to sell RIPTA via auction to a private company, with minimal mandates for coverage, zero protection from competition (monopolies are bad, state-sponsored ones are evil) and relief from the union chokehold.

On a non-union basis a skilled operator can make money with all the benefits of improved quality service that the magic of the invisible hand provides.

For those who think that state involvement is required because of "fairness": Can you name a single economic function that is done better by government than by private business?

Posted by: BobN at December 14, 2009 5:06 PM

BobN - agree with everything you said.

I will just point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with unions, people should have the right to self-organize and associate. Only public unions are the problem. Collective bargaining with a public entity that can coerce any amount of additional revenue from people on a whim makes no sense whatsoever and is just plain evil.

Absent government interventionism and bailouts, businesses are more than capable of taking care of their own private union issues on their own, and those that are incapable of doing so will be driven out of business and replaced by those who can, as they should be.

Can you imagine how profitable the MBTA would be if it were being run by a private business that could fire all of the 100k do-nothing union hacks and heroin addicted drivers? Only government could find a way not to make money off of a public transportation system in a grossly overpopulated city with literally no parking.

Posted by: Dan at December 14, 2009 7:39 PM

Thanks, Dan. Let me clarify my point on unions. I am not anti-union. Unions are an expression of the Constitutional right to assemble. I am against a legal regime that gives unions an unfair amount of power in dealing with management, whether public or private sector. At the same time that I would not outlaw unions I would not use political power to force employers to deal with them. A right-to-work regime is not inconsistent with the existence of unions. It just forces them to compete with non-union providers and offer the employer value commensurate with their demands.

Posted by: BobN at December 14, 2009 8:58 PM

Well said. As usual, it is when government starts picking favorites that all of these unintended consequences and externalities arise that could otherwise all be sorted out by the free market.

Posted by: Dan at December 14, 2009 10:19 PM

Virtually no surface transportation infrastructure pays for itself. All modes of transportation are greatly subsidized, both financially and often with not-so-obvious incentives.

For example, there are enormous government incentives for private automobiles:

Only half of US highway spending is paid for with user fees.

Zoning codes in virtually every US municipality require minimum amounts of parking. The result is that government is mandating a preference for automobile travel whenever new development is built, and the costs of private auto travel are not borne by the user but by everyone.

Our state just spent $610 million of our tax money to relocate I-195, one freeway used primarily for private automobile travel. (For perspective: RIPTA's annual operating budget is $96.5 million.)

And let's not forget Cash for Clunkers, where the government literally pays you to buy a car.

Public transportation, like private automobiles, is subsidized. RIPTA's farebox recovery ratio (the percentage of its operating costs that are covered by fares paid by users) is approaching 35 percent. It is worth nothing that public transportation's positive externalities - reduced pollution, reduced congestion and incentive for more efficient land use - make it a rather attractive investment from a conservative perspective.

Although there are examples of free market enterprise at work in our transportation system, such as competition between intercity bus carriers or airlines, those services are operating within a publicly-subsidized framework - namely, public roads and airports (and the airlines got a government bailout, to boot). Transportation infrastructure is a public good that requires investment. The existing transit system in Rhode Island (which has not expanded service significantly in the past decade) has had a 33% increase in ridership since 1999 - talk about doing more with less! The City of Providence & RIPTA just laid out a vision plan for an improved public transport network in our state's metropolitan heart. The goal of the study was not to identify funding sources for each project, it was to identify what those projects should be in the first place. There is a need for investment in the economic engine of our state. This is the first step on the path toward that investment. Rather than complain about our state's economic malaise and criticize attempts to invest in the infrastructure that will lay the foundation for a stronger economy, let's get to work finding and supporting the most efficient and effective investments laid out in the recent visioning plan.

Recommended reading: and

Posted by: Jack at December 15, 2009 12:27 AM

Jack, saying that all forms of transportation are subsidized because of the roads and infrastructure is really silly and misses the point.

The roads and infrastructure exist either way - they are part of the landscape as far as the alternatives we are debating are concerned. That being the case, we still have public or private alternatives to use within that infrastructure. And there are many self-sufficient private forms of transportation besides cars - buses, zip cars, taxis. I am sure subways would be if government didn't monopolize them for itself. Even space travel is now private with Virgin Galactic.

The cash for clunkers program is irrelevant, it has nothing to do with whether private cars would be feasible or not without the program, of course they would be.

Posted by: Dan at December 15, 2009 1:15 AM

If Rhode Island is serious about upgrading and modernizing RIPTA then they should take a look at the island of Oahu and Hawaii’s “TheBus” transit system.

First visiting Hawaii from RI and then retiring to Hawaii from RI I have had the advantage to fall in love with “TheBus” over all convoluted operations and non-service of RIPTA.

Island of Oahu is about ¾ land size of RI at about 607 sq. mi. or 44 miles long by 30 miles wide with 70% of the total state population in residence and about 65,000 visitors visiting daily. It is the most cosmopolitan island in Hawaii but only 30% of land is developed. However you can travel to just about every sq mi on Oahu via “TheBus” either regular or “Express Bus”.

“The Bus has 8 hubs on the island one main hub located at the Ala Moana shopping center (world’s largest open-air shopping mall) affording passengers (shopping, food, beverage, entertainment, lodging) and rain/sun protection waiting areas, change of direction and destination is based on which side of mall your bus routes are on. Tourist buses and trolleys also us Ala Moana as additional services. In the future the 20 mile east-west elevated $5.8 Billion high speed light rail transit system (starting construction Jan. 2010) will be linked to Ala Moana Shopping Mall, International Airport, University of Hawaii campuses and second City of Kapolei.

All of “TheBus” hubs are located in high pedestrian locations or dense business areas. 95% of “TheBus” stops are additional out of travel lane in order not to restrict normal traffic flow and about 90% of bus stops have benches and/or rain/sun shelters.

“TheBus” has been the only mass transit system to be recognized twice by the American Public Transportation Association as America's Best Transit System for 1994–1995 and 2000-2001, beating other transit systems.

Ridership for “TheBus” has grown from 30 million passengers per year to approximately 71 million. “TheBus” is now the 20th most utilized transit system in the country, the 13th most utilized bus fleet, and the sixth highest transit ridership in the country per-capita. “TheBus” also has the lowest cost per passenger mile of any system and one of the lowest cost per boarding passengers in the industry.

“TheBus” is converting its fleet to hybrid buses.

Additional information about “TheBus” and links can be found at:

Posted by: Ken at December 15, 2009 2:07 AM

"Virtually no surface transportation infrastructure pays for itself."

This is especially true of mass transit, which can never come close to breaking even, never mind show a profit.

In my view, mass transit is, indeed, one of the services that should be provided by gov't, even though it operates at a loss. The only question is, can it be provided at a lower cost? In this state, as the General Assembly has its hands in the management and operation on several levels, the answer is, definitely yes.

Posted by: Monique at December 15, 2009 8:00 AM

How is forcing one citizen to pay for another citizen's bus ride different from forcing one citizen to pay for anther's medical care?

How would our landscape be different without subsidized mass transit? Would it necessarily be worse?

And why is it good for society to force a service that is most efficiently managed by profit-seeking people to be run by bureaucrats and unions who are free from the discipline of bankruptcy if they do their jobs badly?

Posted by: BobN at December 15, 2009 8:57 AM

@Jack - right on. The roads are not just "there" - let alone the interstate highway system, which, according to RIPTA's history of transit in RI, led to a decline in public transportation use from 100 million rides per year to 20 million over a fifteen year period. The USA made a decision to fund one kind of surface transport at the expense of another - road over rail (in various forms) - and is now paying the price in terms of congestion, poor air quality, and people-hostile streets. Drive down almost any moderately traveled street in a core city and note how few people are outside. The effect of automobile traffic on social life - not to mention physical safety - is well-documented.

IMO urban streets would be dominated by foot traffic, regulated bike traffic, and pleasant public transit - like the proposed streetcars - with cars available to people when they really need them.

"Conservatives" talk like this is a fight between freedom and government interference. Nonsense. It's a fight between one kind of government-favored way of life and another. A properly conservative mindset, valuing past ways of life, community, and even old physical structures, should rejoice at the revival of the streetcar, and go looking for more. It's the proponents of unchecked sprawl and continued subsidization of the overblown, extravagant, soul-deadening highway system that have something to explain.

Posted by: Daniel in Pawtucket at December 15, 2009 10:02 AM

Daniel, you seem to think that the car came from nowhere and without its own incentives and advantages. Not a very logical analysis from an economics standpoint, of course I can see the appeal from a "progressive" political perspective.

The fact of the matter is that cars drastically cut down on travel times, prevent the spread of disease, and are the most direct and cost-efficient way from Point A to Point B for most working people (a necessity for those who need to transport things as part of work). They are one of the biggest reasons why the United States has been as efficient and as successful as it has been.

Monique, how can you possibly make the claim that mass transit can never be profitable? Private railroads were extremely profitable until government got involved and they couldn't compete anymore (the same thing that will happen with health-care) and there are still many private bus companies. Pointing to the fact that public mass transit systems generally lose money doesn't prove the proposition, because it is precisely government itself that causes that inefficiency by mismanaging, over-covering, and overpaying many superfluous unionized workers. To use an earlier example, people said that space travel could never be done privately, and now we have Virgin Galactic. Never say never. If there is a sufficient demand for a service, there will be somebody willing to meet that demand, and if there isn't a sufficient demand, well, then it isn't worth doing!

Posted by: Dan at December 15, 2009 12:15 PM

I failed to mention on the Big Island of Hawaii (about three times the physical size of RI) about 4,038 sq mi or 93 mi long by 76 mi wide the “Hele-On Bus” public bus transit system covering the whole island is free to the public, visitors and tourist. About 67, 194 riders were serviced so far this year creating an 18.49% increase in transit use.

Posted by: Ken at December 15, 2009 6:53 PM

"IMO urban streets would be dominated by foot traffic, regulated bike traffic, and pleasant public transit -"

Pleasant? Have you been on a RIPTA bus in Providence lately?

Posted by: Chris at December 16, 2009 1:08 PM
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