Toting megaphones, waving posters and belting out chants of opposition, activists angered over the state’s plan to break up downtown Providence’s Kennedy Plaza bus hub made their message clear Saturday: The blueprint is bad.
At a rally in Burnside Park, the Rhode Island Transit Riders Alliance joined local organizations including the Providence Streets Coalition, Grow Smart RI, the Kennedy Plaza Coalition and South Providence Neighborhood Association to call out the state’s Department of Transportation for a plan critics say will hurt communities of color and has lacked public input.
“How is it that you’re not allowing public engagement with public money?” asked SPNA Chair Dwayne Keys. “That’s a problem.”
Given that the plaza’s buses, operated by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, are heavily used by riders of color, opponents have found the plan all the more troubling. Keys called the situation “deplorable.”
“They removed Providence Plantations from the name, but they’re still treating us like we’re in the plantation,” said Keys. “I think that’s the best way to say it.”
Jairson Ascencao, a rider who showed up to the rally, took the megaphone once the marching was through to deliver a candid message about what he described as an effort to shoo away the city’s homeless and poor.
“Rather than do something about it, rather than help these people that are living shitty lives out on the street, they just want to keep hiding them and kicking them away and putting them to the side. If you don’t see them, it’s not your problem.”
At the heart of frustration over the plan is that it would relocate most of Kennedy Plaza’s centrally located hubs to the Providence Train Station and the former Jewelry District. Barry Schiller, a co-founder of RI Transit Riders and former member of RIPTA’s board of directors, summed it up in a few words: “more confusing and less convenient.”
“The train station sounds good, but relatively few passengers want to go from train to bus. People want to be here, not in the Jewelry District and not at the train station.”
For Liza Burkin, a lead organizer with the Providence Streets Coalition, pointed to the Department of Transportation’s experience in highway building rather than transit planning as an issue.
“To me it says that they’re much more concerned with the interests of downtown property owners than transit riders for whom this pandemic has shown that they’re essential,” Burkin said. “On the one hand we say these people are essential workers, they’re heroes, and on the other hand we’re messing with their transportation, which is the ability to get to work and school and all the things.”
Both Gov. Dan McKee and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza have been supportive of the $35-million project, portraying it as a benefit to riders.
In a statement to The Providence Journal, McKee’s office said he’s “committed to making necessary investments in and improvements to public transportation in Providence.”
“He is also committed to ensuring the process is transparent, addresses feedback from stakeholders and results in a plan that serves those who rely on public transportation most. The planning process is still underway. Any feedback or comments made by members of the public will be taken into consideration while the team at RIDOT works on plan finalization. When the final plan is released, RIDOT will continue to have public hearings to receive and address any issues.”
RIDOT did not immediately respond to The Providence Journal’s request for comment.