This September, after two rejected applications for federal funding, the City of Providence was approved for a $13 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant in support of a streetcar project. The proposed streetcar would begin on Thayer Street in College Hill, run over the Providence River through downtown, and then veer through the Jewelry District towards Rhode Island Hospital and Brown Medical School. The track would be 2.5 miles long, but the city has also issued a map of “potential future streetcar extensions,” apparently contingent upon the success of the initial bit.
Given the proposed route, it seems likely that tourists and college students would compose the majority of the streetcar’s rider base. The track would conveniently connect the area’s colleges—Brown, RISD, Johnson and Wales, and the Brown Medical School— with downtown Providence, and offer tourists a means to explore downtown’s various commercial options. This traffic would benefit the many businesses along the track and might even encourage new development in the Jewelry District, whose swaths of land daylighted by the removal of the I-95 highway lay largely barren. But both of these populations—the students and the tourists—are transient. The current plans for the streetcar exclude most of Providence’s communities, which reside outside of the small area the streetcar would service. The question is, then, whether this project would help the people of Providence, or just the people who least need this kind of help.
The streetcar would cost $114 million to build and $3 million annually to run. Posited as a public-private venture, the project’s “partners” include the City of Rhode Island, RIPTA, Brown University, and an unspecific group of “private sector leaders,” as written in a pamphlet issued by the city to promote the project. Yet the funding for the project will come mostly from taxpayers, especially since the federal TIGER grant only covers about 11 percent of the total cost. In fact, the current plan calls on new taxes to fund 47 percent of the project.
Mayor Angel Taveras, a staunch advocate of the plan, has proposed the creation of a new Tax Incremental Funding (TIF) district to help subsidize the project. Residents living in the TIF district would pay incrementally increasing taxes to help subsidize the streetcar; the increments would correspond to a projected increase in property-value in the district. The idea behind TIF is to have the beneficiaries of public projects help pay for them by more heavily taxing the residents near the project.
Historically, TIF districts have aroused controversy for encouraging gentrification in urban spaces. As taxes go up in a certain area, landlords push the increased cost onto tenants, the rents go up, and poorer residents are pushed out of the area. In turn, a space develops that caters to wealthy residents who can afford to live there. New stores, restaurants, and services thrive on their money; small businesses are bought out.
A distinct division exists between the area through which the streetcar would run and the surrounding neighborhoods, and the streetcar development could exacerbate these socio-economic tensions. In the streetcar area resides a concentration of young, white residents: 63.1 percent of the residents along the line are white, and 57.6 percent are between the ages of 20-34. In the neighborhoods outside of the streetcar zone, the majority of the residents are minorities: 39.4 percent Hispanic, 37.5 percent White, 14.5 percent Black, 5.4 percent Asian, and 3.2 percent multiple ethnicities. Additionally, a 2009 analysis from City-Data shows that white individuals and families have the highest median income in Providence. These data paint a familiar picture of concentrated class and race in Downtown and College Hill. Spaces like the Providence Place Mall, often touted as a major attraction in Downtown, demonstrate how the space already markets itself towards this demographic. It’s the perfect compliment to the wealthy corridor on the other side of the river. The Providence streetcar would strengthen the bonds between these two regions, one primarily residential and the other commercial. The students and residents of College Hill might be more inclined to venture downtown on a streetcar, where they wouldn’t coincide with riders of the more wide-spread RIPTA bus system. (RIPTA already has numerous busses that run through the East Side Tunnel, straight from College Hill to Downtown.) A streetcar in this area, along with the attendant TIF district, could thus encourage even more stringent socio-economic divisions.
"Am I against this? No. Am I for it? No,” said mayoral candidate Vincent “Buddy” Cianci with regards to the streetcar project. He continued: "My question—any prudent fiscal manager should ask—if the taxpayers are footing the rest of the bill, is this the best use of those taxpayer dollars?”
Other Providence taxpayers are asking the same question. Barry Schiller, an active member of RIPTA Riders—an organization that promotes the use of and defends funding for public transportation in Rhode Island—expressed a similar sentiment: “While much public info has been given about the streetcar, and there have been opportunities to comment, the decision to develop the plans and apply for the TIGER grant were taken without much public input.” It’s not a far cry to draw a comparison to Rhode Island’s disastrous investment in 38 Studios, a decision also made without voter input. (38 Studios was a video game company to which the state of Rhode Island lent $75 million—it subsequently went bankrupt). But, as Schiller continued, “We are not yet committed to the streetcar and public opinion can prevent it, as financing for the entire system is not assured.”
Political support is not assured either, it seems. While Mayor Taveras is an advocate of the streetcar project, two of the three mayoral candidates in the upcoming elections have expressed doubt about the development. The mayor is a big player in this project, and without full-fledged commitment there is little hope for the project’s success. “This does not support the street car proposal," said Republican candidate Dan Harrop of the $13 million federal TIGER Grant. "If RIPTA, the state, the federal government and Brown University (since this is essentially an intramodal project from Brown's medical campus to its main campus) want to build this, then great! The city under my administration will clear the permits and the zoning. But we have not one penny to put to this project." In a similar vein, Buddy Cianci noted, “It would serve two important parts of the community, but what about elsewhere?" Brown University has issued no official statements concerning the streetcar project, despite their status as a partner in the project.
Jorge Elorza is the one candidate who has shown some support for the streetcar. Elorza wrote, "If federal TIGER grant funds are awarded to support the streetcar initiative, I will support the creation of a TIF district to provide the City’s portion of financial support for the project.” Then again, Elorza’s voter base consists of affluent East Side residents, those who would benefit most from a streetcar in its proposed location.
Can a $13 million federal award—a sum less than half of what the city applied for— really justify the investment of $100 million more? One argument on behalf of the streetcar is that, when it comes to transportation, you need to start somewhere. This line would connect some of Rhode Island’s largest employers, and were it a success, it might act as an impetus to actually expand the system throughout the city. On the other hand, by what prescription is it necessary to start with the wealthiest, whitest part of Providence? Why not connect a neighborhood like West End or Olneyville with Providence’s center? If the proposed line fails, it will be a huge waste of resources, the potential extensions will never be built, and it will set a terrible precedent for future investments in transportation, making it that much harder to push new projects through.
Similar light-rail transportation projects in other cities have had mixed success, a potential warning sign for the Providence streetcar. If one thing is clear, it’s that light rail projects have been a major trend over the past thirty years. One reason cities might invest in streetcars, as opposed to new bus routes, is that the permanence of a new track demonstrates long-term investment in a space; bus routes are more ephemeral, subject to the whim of those in power. The allure of a streetcar is also its economic and structural feasibility, in contrast to more cumbersome subway systems. Since 1980, over 640 miles of new light rail line have been built in the United States. New heavy rail subway systems, on the other hand, have not garnered new investment since 1993. Five notable cities built light rail lines in 1980: Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose. Like Providence, these cities hoped that their lines would better connect their populations and boost their economies. But, based on an analysis of census data conducted by the urbanist and journalist Yonah Freemark, the amount of local workers who rode transit to work declined in four out of the five cities that invested in light rail lines between 1980 and 2012. The main positive correlation found in his study was between streetcars and cities’ core populations. But, as Freemark notes, “Whether that relative success resulted from light rail is unclear; there are plenty of other urban growth factors that come into play.”
There are other ways to augment Providence’s public transportation. Barry Schiller suggests that the city could “improve frequencies of existing bus lines, some of which get quite crowded. RIPTA could also re-establish a low-cost or no-cost ‘short zone’ in central Providence, which RIPTA had until about 2002.” Another alternative investment might be short-term bike rental stations, which many cities have added to their transportation infrastructure since 2008. The open area in front of Providence Station is in ruins, and if part of the goal of Providence streetcar is to improve the city’s image, the Station might be a better place to start; it’s the portal into Providence for many travelers and visitors, and it could certainly use the renovation.
The main purported goal of the streetcar is economic development. The logic of transportation development is to connect people to each other and to new jobs. When a city provides public transportation to an area, it shows active investment in that area. It’s a positive sign to the people, and to potential investors of institutional belief in the region. But a city must take its whole into account, and show investment in all of the diverse interests that constitute its urban life. In the case of the streetcar, this idea is transportation development aimed at the economic advancement of small part of Providence, incidentally dividing the city so people exist, socialize, and consume where they are “supposed to.”
This tone-deafness is not merely an aberration. Another project that exemplifies these skewed priorities is the Kennedy Plaza redevelopment, which, as put by Providence Journal columnist Dave Brussat, is “an attack on the people’s plaza.” One of the apparent motives behind the redevelopment is to create a new civic space in Providence. Yet, Kennedy Plaza already functioned as a civic space, despite its utilitarian purpose as a bus terminal. People from all walks of life gathered in Kennedy Plaza. The redesign, which destroys half of the bus berths at the plaza, siphons bus riders away from the space. Don’t these bus patrons have a right to Kennedy Plaza, just as much as any college student or tourist does?
On the surface, Providence streetcar and Kennedy Plaza are not bad projects. In fact, there are redeemable ideas embedded in both. But even the best ideas can be perverted into exclusionary tools for those in power. Public projects, if they are truly to serve the public, must be spaces of inclusion.