In June, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) proposed cutting the state’s bus service by 10 percent (reduced to seven in more recent proposals) to combat the agency’s four million dollar budget deficit for this fiscal year. The cuts, as proposed, would affect 39 routes in total—completely eliminating some lines, running fewer buses on others, and cutting service after 10PM for many routes. The proposed cuts have met with much public outcry from riders who count on RIPTA to get to jobs, school, and medical appointments. Progressive legislators and political organizations, like Ocean State Action, which has helped to organize protests at the statehouse against the cuts, have been quick to point out that cuts to RIPTA disproportionately impact the working poor and disabled, for whom public transportation is the only option for getting to and from work.
In late August, after 10 public hearings and over 600 testimonies from those who would be impacted by the cuts, the RIPTA Board announced it would delay any decision on cuts until September. The grassroots group RIPTA Riders, which has campaigned furiously against the cuts, said on their website that the delay was “a small victory in the fight against service cuts” but the “battle to secure sustainable funding to keep buses rolling for years to come” was still at hand.
In the interim, RIPTA has sought new ways to reduce costs, including negotiating with unions representing drivers and mechanics over absenteeism and overtime in their contracts. Despite efforts by former Governor Carcieri’s administration to prove otherwise, no independent audit has ever found RIPTA to be a particularly wasteful or inefficient government agency. Rather, RIPTA blames its perennial budgetary difficulties on its funding structure, which derives most of its revenue from the gas tax.
Now, the Indy is no Ben Bernanke, but this funding structure seems kind of counter-intuitive on the face of it. If one of the stated purposes of a public transportation system is to have fewer cars on the road clogging up traffic and polluting our city’s air, not to mention allowing drivers to save money on gas, why would the funding of said transportation system be dependent on the perpetual sale of gas? Does that mean that as more people ride RIPTA instead of driving their cars, RIPTA gets less money? Can that possibly be right? Hello? Anybody?