When the Venture Fails, Can RI Give It Away for Free?


Yesterday, with reference to the PawSox, I suggested that Rhode Islanders have just seen too many promises go sour, experienced too many times that their acceptance of financial risk has proven why organizations like to “share” risk with taxpayers in the first place.  This isn’t just timidity in response to 38 Studios; the burn marks are all over taxpayers’ skin.  For example, Tim White reports on WPRI:

The latest ridership numbers [from the Wickford Junction rail station] show the average weekday ridership out of the station – which opened in April 2012 – was just 292 commuters during the three months ended March 31.

That number is dramatically lower than the projection in a 2005 South County Commuter Rail Service operations plan, which estimated Wickford Junction would have 3,386 daily weekday riders by 2020. The operations plan was used to win support for the $44.7 million train station.

So what’s an agency to do when the rationale for a project proves to be abysmally wrong, but it can’t fail because it’s the government and can simply confiscate resources to keep going?

RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said all fares between Wickford and Providence, in either direction, will be free for six months starting July 3. If a rider wants to take the train from Wickford to Boston, for example, the cost of the trip will be reduced to what the fare would be from Providence to Boston.

A sort of pilot program for the free tickets came with free rides to the National Guard air show, which RIDOT says cost taxpayers $65,000.  But importantly, this isn’t just a cost to taxpayers; it’s a government agency undercutting, one way or another, people’s other options.  Auto dealers, taxi services, Uber drivers, limo services, gas stations, convenience stores along people’s commuting paths, and so on, will see marginal drops.

This sort of infrastructure has a role, but it arises when current options are causing a clear and direct harm.  When thousands of people are losing hours of every day to unnecessary commutes, easing the flow can bring gains in productivity and quality of life to counterbalance negative effects in the economy — as proven by the fact that the riders are willing to pay something for the fare.  But build-it-and-they’ll-ride should no longer be an option.

  • Honesty Broker

    Agreed – personally, I just don’t see the Providence area to be a good fit for public transit infrastructure. The city boundary is quite small and then quickly transitions to suburban and then rural.

    If we had a massive sprawling city then that might be a different matter.

    It seems that folks like to throw in a few stops or errands on their commute (either to work or even to Boston) so they’d rather just hop in their car and go.

    In terms of the daily commute, *maybe* the issue is getting people off the highway and to their parking spots more efficiently. Maybe a couple of parking garages at the outer edge of the city and some short commuter rails from their into downtown (but even that sounds like overkill – just thinking out loud)

  • Rhett Hardwick

    In my youth, after a week end of partying in NYC, I would take the “milk train” back to PVD. It made stops, such as North Kingston, at 4 AM, no one ever seemed to get on, or off. Always wondered about that.