PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence’s ambitious plan to build a streetcar system that would connect Upper South Providence to College Hill hit a snag Thursday when the city learned it will not receive the $39 million it requested from the federal government to jump-start the project.
The city hoped to begin construction on the $114-million streetcar system by late 2015 with service beginning in 2017, but that timeline assumed the city would secure more than a third of the necessary through a highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation program.
"It's unfortunate that the streetcar proposal was not accepted for this round of federal funds,” City Council President Michael Solomon told WPRI.com. “Where public infrastructure and transportation investments occur, private dollars soon follow. That means jobs for our residents and an all-around improved business climate.”
- More: Digging in on the proposed Providence streetcar
- PDF: Providence's full streetcar proposal
- Op-Ed: Why Providence needs a streetcar system
All told, 52 projects in 37 states were awarded $474 million from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, a federal initiative that was launched as part of President Obama's economic stimulus package in 2009.
In Rhode Island, Warwick received a $10-million TIGER grant to build a new two-way bypass system around the heart of the Apponaug business district, a project Gov. Lincoln Chafee supported over Providence’s streetcar proposal earlier this year. Chafee is a former mayor of Warwick.
"The Apponaug Circulator is one of the city’s major arteries and its aging infrastructure is in dire need of repair," Congressman Jim Langevin, who hails from Warwick, said in a statement Thursday. "This $10 million TIGER grant will not only fund necessary improvements, but it will also pave the way for new traffic to access the area through an easier-to-navigate, two-way bypass."
The 2.1-mile streetcar system proposed by the Taveras administration would include 11 stops between the hospital district in South Providence and College Hill near Brown University, which the city described in its application for the TIGER grant as its "two largest employment centers."
The city said the streetcars would run every 12 minutes during peak hours and would connect both areas with the research facilities in the city's so-called "Knowledge District" just south of downtown.
In its application, Providence officials pledged to secure the rest of the project’s funding through city and state bonds as well about $5.25 million in additional federal funds secured by the R.I. Public Transit Authority. Sponsorships, advertising revenues and $2 fares would be used to sustain the system once it got up and running.
"The Providence Streetcar is inherently linked to our vision for growth," Mayor Angel Taveras wrote in a May 31 proposal to former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.
Jef Nickerson, founder and editor of the urban planning and development blog Greater City Providence, told WPRI.com that it is “disappointing that Rhode Island prioritizes funding for automobile infrastructure but continues to fail in funding for mass transit services in the state's urban core.”
Nickerson cited the General Assembly’s inability to pass legislation that would provide a reliable source of funding for RIPTA and Chafee’s unwillingness to support the streetcar as two examples of how the state “undervalues transit.”
“Rhode Island's built environment and dense population is well suited for mass transit yet we continue to prioritize a transportation system which leaves Rhode Islanders dependent on their automobiles," Nickerson said.
Taveras, a first-term Democrat who is widely expected to run for the open governor’s office in 2014, first endorsed the streetcar in a wide-ranging economic development plan earlier this year. That proposal also called for freezing commercial property taxes – which the city did for the 2013-14 fiscal year – and redeveloping the Kennedy Plaza bus hub in downtown.
“We’ll continue to aggressively pursue a sustainable funding strategy to make streetcars a reality in Providence," David Ortiz, a spokesman for the mayor, told WPRI.com. "The federal procurement process can sometimes take more than a year. We are disappointed not to have received funding this year, but we’re in no way discouraged.”
Solomon, the Democratic president of the City Council who plans to run for mayor next year, said he will continue to fight to bring a streetcar system to Providence.
“All the studying is done, and it shows that this is an economic development slam dunk,” Solomon said. “This sets us back a little, but there are passionate people behind this proposal who want to build a brighter Providence and I stand with them."
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