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U.S. Transportation chief supports Providence streetcar plan

Jun 03, 2010,| Permalink
Philip Marcelo

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A plan to create a metropolitan public transportation system that includes streetcars in downtown Providence received support from the Obama Administration on Thursday.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, on his first visit to Rhode Island, said the administration would work with the state and the city to make their vision a reality.

"You're on your way to transforming your community and we're going to be partners in helping you do that," LaHood said at a forum at Johnson and Wales University, following a bus trolley tour of the downtown.

LaHood joined Mayor David N. Cicilline, U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and other state and city officials on a brief city visit to learn more about the public transportation plan.

Earlier in the day, LaHood and Reed visited Westerly High School to talk to students about the dangers of driving while using handheld electronic devices.

In December, Cicilline and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority officials unveiled the Providence Metropolitan Transit Enhancement Study (also called Transit 2020), a $128 million proposal to remake public transit in the Providence metro area.

The plan calls for rapid bus lines running from Cranston to Pawtucket, a reconfiguration of Kennedy Plaza to ease pedestrian and vehicle congestion, and a two-mile streetcar line running from the universities on the East Side to the hospitals in South Providence, among other projects.

Since then, RIPTA has begun construction of bus hubs in the city that will divert some of the commuter traffic at Kennedy Plaza, according to RIPTA special projects manager Amy Pettine. Rapid bus lines are slated for operation after November, says city Director of Planning and Development Thomas E. Deller.

And RIPTA is moving forward with the proposed $75 million streetcar system by conducting a feasibility study that is required in order to apply for federal transportation funding, said Deller. HDR, a Nebraska-based consulting firm, has been chosen to complete that year long study, he said.

LaHood and U.S. federal Transit Administrator Peter M. Rogoff said that Rhode Island has improve its chances for federal funding by rallying the support of other municipalities as well as the city's universities, hospitals, businesses, and environmental groups to develop the plan.

City institutions and businesses have committed to contributing to the local match needed to qualify for federal funding, according to the mayor, and officials from Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital, and Nortek -- a manufacturer of building products based downtown -- head an advisory group overseeing the evolution of the transit proposal.

"You're doing this right," Rogoff said. "You're putting together the coalitions while the projects are being developed rather than creating the plan and then spending two or three years trying to get the community support."

While the state has already missed the deadline to apply for funds to create streetcars under the federal economic stimulus plan, LaHood promised that the administration would be making more federal funds available. "Rhode Island is going to be part of a national high speed urban rail system," he said.

Meanwhile, Cicilline says the local officials are working to identify other funding currently available, including other stimulus funds. "With these sorts of transit projects, it's always a cobbling together of resources from municipal, state and federal government and local institutions."