TIVERTON, LITTLE COMPTON — Triggered by the opening of the new Sakonnet Bridge, and the looming possibility of tolls, sentiment for public transit in these two communities is resurfacing.
The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority [RIPTA] says it’s studying the question. As part of its data-gathering, it has scheduled a meeting for next Monday, March 18, at 7 p.m. in Tiverton Town Hall. The meeting “will be an opportunity for residents and employers to let us know what their transit needs are and how we might best serve them,” said Amy Pettine, RIPTA’s director of planning and marketing.
Janice Gomes, director of Tiverton’s senior center, says she remembers buses in Tiverton as a child growing up in town.
“I think bus service would be a great service to the town,” Ms. Gomes said. Noting that the Department of Human Services is located in Middletown, she said, “We have many elderly people who don’t want to drive to go there. They’ll come right out and tell you, I don’t want to drive that far. There are many elderly people who will drive around Tiverton, but no further.”
Little Compton Town Council President Bob Mushen says that he’s been told a daily commuter bus from the Commons used to serve town residents daily. In Tiverton, an unused park-and-ride lot on Fish Road, at the intersection with Route 24, gives evidence of past transit service.
“Little Compton does suffer from lack of public transportation,” including for “seniors who might have trouble driving at night, or who can’t drive,” young people who don’t have cars, and people with disabilities,” said Gina Malloy, director of Little Compton’s Community Center.
Francisco Silva, 78, of Little Compton, long an advocate of busing for seniors, said he knows numerous elderly residents in his community who will drive their cars on Little Compton roads, but “don’t feel comfortable” driving across the Sakonnet River Bridge.
Carolyn Montgomery of Little Compton, also in her early 80’s, worries, that there may not be enough people in her community to justify running full-size buses regularly. Smaller vehicles might not be a solution either, she says, since labor costs would probably be about same.
Complicating RIPTA’s task of determining the need for its services are problems that arise in public transit between states.
“We requested permission to cross [state borders] and were denied by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration,” said RIPTA spokeswoman Ms. Pettine. “It was several years ago but it had to do with insurance.”
The new Sakonnet River Bridge is now capable of carrying heavy buses. For over four years the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) had banned buses over 18 tons from crossing it.
“I do not know when the RIDOT weight restrictions went into effect,” Ms. Pettine said, “but we discontinued our service in June 2008 … At that time we were picking up less than half a dozen passengers a day in Tiverton and Little Compton.”
On Oct. 1, 2012. Rep. John Edwards (D -Dist 70), representing Tiverton and Portsmouth, wrote to RIPTA Chairman Scott Avedisian, mayor of Warwick.
“My constituents need access to public transportation as any other city or town in Rhode Island,” Rep. Edwards wrote. “We have been paying and continue to pay our share of the gas tax through which [RIPTA] is funded. We expect our fair share of access to public transportation as afforded elsewhere. Now that the new Sakonnet River Bridge is available, the weight limits are no longer a bar to the buses that RIPTA uses, so service should be restored.”
Shortly after Rep. Edwards’ letter, Ms. Pettine said, RIPTA officials met with Tiverton Town Administrator James Goncalo — for the first time, he said.
Public transit popped up as an issue at packed meetings about bridge tolls in Portsmouth and Tiverton in early December.
Among the hundreds opposing tolls were a few who voiced concerns about the lack of public transit of any kind in Tiverton and Little Compton. They said the lack of a public transit alternative would be an additional burden that tolls would impose.
“There is no RIPTA service in Tiverton and Little Compton,” and a “fairer” solution to raise money for bridge maintenance than tolls is required than one that impacts people who need public transit, a Tiverton resident said.
RIPTA has undertaken a Comprehensive Operational Analysis (COA) to study potential ridership. It began that study last May and is scheduled to complete it by the end of February. RIPTA says it is setting community meetings throughout the state, including the one in Tiverton, “to share recommendations for improvements to our system.”
Whether the Tiverton meeting will come at the end of the process, when results are announced, or earlier, when data about needs is gathered, is unclear.
Mr. Goncalo said that prior to its October meeting with him, RIPTA had not met with any Tiverton officials.
Nor, by its own admission, has RIPTA met with any officials in Little Compton about that town’s needs. “We have not reached out to Little Compton,” Ms. Pettine said, “but will do so in the future.”
COA documents also show that stakeholder groups and interviewees do not include representatives from Tiverton or Little Compton, and that the Technical Advisory Committee for the study includes no representatives from these two towns.
Timeline for service
“I cannot tell you when service will be restored or at what level,” Ms. Pettine said. “We are and will continue to work with town officials to understand the needs of the community and do our best to meet those needs given the great demand for transit service in our state. ”
Lifting of weight restrictions and potential toll impacts don’t appear to have played much part in RIPTA planning for bus needs in Tiverton and Little Compton.
Ms. Pettine said RIPTA “learned about the restrictions being lifted this past Fall and contacted the town of Tiverton in October.
And RIPTA’s operational analysis “is not looking at toll impacts,” Ms. Pettine said. “This is a future scenario that is still unknown. We are focusing our efforts on existing conditions.”
RIPTA and RIDOT (as well as the Bridge and Turnpike Authority), she said, “have been in discussions around this issue.” But, “we are not prepared at this time to identify what type of impact tolling may have on demand for bus service nor propose any changes to our service as a result of tolls being implemented.”
“As I’m sure you know,” Ms. Pettine said, “RIPTA has limited resources and great demand for service. This [COA] process is a comprehensive way for us to identify where demand is highest for service, while also being mindful of our need to provide geographic coverage and serve Rhode Islander’s who rely on transit.”