PAWTUCKET — “There’s nothing prettier riding on Rhode Island’s roads today,” exclaimed Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, as he stood in front of one of the new diesel-hybrid trolleys that Pawtucket has just received from the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority.
The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center Thursday morning to promote the two classic style trolleys that will service Route 73 (Fairlawn/CCRI) and Route 80 (Armistice Blvd.). Along with RIPTA officials, including CEO Charles Odimgbe, those in attendance included U.S. Congressman David Cicilline, state Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and City Councilor Jean Philippe Barros.
While the eye-catching styling is a throwback to an earlier era, the trolleys are very much centered on today’s planet-friendly technology.
According to RIPTA, the vehicles are powered by clean diesel hybrid electrical propulsion systems that reduce emissions, save fuel and are smoother and quieter than conventional buses. They are also handicapped accessible according to ADA standards.
The red and gold painted trolleys, which each seat approximately 32 passengers, are part of RIPTA’s normal fleet replacement plan and represent two of ten such vehicles purchased in 2010. According to RIPTA, replacement of CNG trolleys and diesel buses to a hybrid system will yield approximately a 20 percent savings on fuel for RIPTA.
Each trolley, manufactured by Gillig Bus in partnership with Cable Car Classics, costs $696,959. Federal Transit Administration Grants funded the base cost of the trolleys, while federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) covered part of the cost of the hybrid propulsion system. A 20 percent local match was provided by state General Obligation Bonds.
While the ribbon-cutting was meant to be upbeat, RIPTA’s recent announcement of a projected $4.6 million deficit in the new fiscal year and proposed cuts to service that include Pawtucket—and even both of the routes assigned to the new trolleys--was also at the forefront.
RIPTA’s CEO, Charles Odimgbe called it “a very conflicting time” as RIPTA, which provides about 18 million rides a year, deals with budget issues and pressure to provide more services. He acknowledged that in the current economy, people need bus service to get to job interviews and other appointments while RIPTA is “struggling to keep services on the street.” However, he said he remains confident that the operation’s fiscal woes can be “overcome.”
Odimgbe said that, despite facing service cuts, “there is no cause for panic.” He said that he and his staff are doing their best to ensure that RIPTA will provide enough service to make sure its riders have access to job interviews, doctor’s appointments and other destinations they need to get to.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien praised the trolleys for being both picturesque and environmentally friendly, and noted that the city’s past history included a trolley line along East Avenue. He said he hoped their arrival would encourage more people to take public transportation and to leave their cars home.
Yet, in light of the proposed cuts in service that could affect area residents, Grebien also spoke about the importance of working in partnership with RIPTA, particularly as it pertains to Pawtucket. He said he would be meeting with Odimgbe and other RIPTA officials shortly to talk about the ridership and how the planned cuts to services affects the local area.
Billington spoke of the important role that RIPTA plays in the region’s tourism business, noting that for many travelers who arrive by plane or train, taking a RIPTA bus or trolley is the only way they can make a connection to another destination. “We need to have a healthy transit system operating,” stated Billington.
Congressman David Cicilline agreed, saying that a good public transportation system is key to maintaining fiscally healthy communities. He pledged to continue to be “an advocate at the federal level for a robust transit system.”
Following the ribbon-cutting, those assembled were invited to board one of the new trolleys and experience the ride for themselves. The trolley lived up to its billing by delivering a ride that was smoother and much quieter than a standard bus. The journey ended at the site of the planned bus turn-around that will be part of a new MBTA train station planned off Newport Avenue at the South Attleboro line (near the lot of Corinne’s Banquet Hall and the mobile home park).
Speaking on behalf of the Pawtucket Foundation, designer Morris Nathanson pointed out the importance of the linkage of bus and trolley service with the South Attleboro MBTA train station. He said it would aid not only tourism but also the people who live in the Pawtucket area and want to commute to Boston and points north for jobs.
Following the ceremony, both Grebien and state Sen. Elizabeth Crowley expressed concerns to The Times about the cuts that RIPTA is proposing in routes and changes that could negatively affect local residents. Crowley, who represents part of Pawtucket and Cumberland as well as Central Falls, said she is particularly concerned because her district has a high number of senior citizens and disabled residents who depend on bus service for things like shopping and getting to jobs. “I’m disturbed about these cuts,” she stated. “It’s not so easy to get to a place like the Lincoln Mall when you don’t know the streets.”
Grebien also said he is taking seriously the proposed cuts in services and looks forward to his upcoming meeting with RIPTA officials. He said he has been assured, however, that even if the routes currently covered by the two new trolleys end up being eliminated or changed, he has been assured that the vehicles will remain in the city as part of the RIPTA fleet serving the local area.
In a recent press release, RIPTA is proposing service cuts that include the elimination of regular service and flex service for Route 73 Fairlawn/CCRI, Route 80 Armistice Boulevard, Route 53 Smithfield Avenue, and Route 75 Dexter/Lincoln Mall. Other proposed eliminations include Saturday service for Route 79 Columbus Avenue, Sunday service for Route 77 Benefit/Broadway, and all weekend service for Route 76 Central Avenue.
The proposed cuts would affect 35 communities and 39 bus routes, Flex zones and Park n’ Ride service and include the following changes: eliminating routes or route segments; decreasing service frequency; ending service at 10 p.m. on weekdays on many routes; and shutting down service at 10 p.m. on weekends on many routes. RIPTA is also proposing to eliminate all holiday bus service.
Public hearings are scheduled for July 26 through August 2, with the closest location to Pawtucket being held on Aug. 1 in Providence at the University of Rhode Island’s Feinstein Providence Campus Auditorium. The hearings are scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.
For more information on the proposed service cuts and hearing locations, visit www.ripta.com .