The Hummel Report: Tax Train

Wickford Junction stationIt may have been the largest number of people ever to visit the Wickford Junction Train Station: That opening day back in 2012 when the US Secretary of Transportation proclaimed the $44 million project a success, even before the first train had officially taken off. Instead it has been an albatross for the state of Rhode Island, a four-story white elephant that never lived up to expectations and was costing taxpayers $800,000 a year just to maintain.

Peter Alviti said when he became Department of Transportation Director two years ago that Wickford Junction was simply costing too much — with the state locked into a nearly half-million-dollar yearly maintenance contract with the man who developed the $25-million garage, Robert Cioe. It might have made sense if more people were using, and paying to park at, the 1,110-car garage.

But they weren’t then and aren’t now.

Wickford Junction AlvitiSo Alviti moved to get out of the contract and have the DOT take over operations at the facility. That decision has come with mixed success and some recent problems at the station. They include the breakdown of all three elevators — two in the lobby and one on the back side of the station. In December all of the elevators were out for a day and in January a day and a half because the state had failed to execute a maintenance contract. And we found the elevators hadn’t been inspected since 2014.

That left handicapped visitors with the option of negotiating a ramp from the parking lot up to the end of the platform or driving up to the second level to come in on the second floor, but not really knowing that if they were unfamiliar with the layout of the station. After a snowstorm last month, the main stairs leading up to the platform were covered in snow when Alviti said a company it contracts with was supposed to have them shoveled.

Wickford Junction stairs“We’ve had some bumps along the way; when we take over a large facility like this there are bound to be those bumps,’’ Alviti said, but claims the state will save $5 million over the next decade, even after paying Cioe $750,000 to get out of the maintenance contract. Part of the savings resulted from a decision to eliminate a nearby park and ride and have RIPTA buses stop at the station, allowing the state to sell the land for $2 million and for riders to park in the garage for free.

Then there are the elevators. “Why are we maintaining and operating three elevators in a building that 200 people a day use?” Alviti asked. “The facility itself was certainly built to accommodate a much larger use than it is currently getting.”

The department decided not to repair a non-functioning elevator in the back of the garage and is considering maintaining just one elevator in the lobby and pointing handicapped people to park on the second level or use the ramp leading to the end of the platform as it did during the recent breakdown. We asked Alviti if the state has given up on ever charging to park in the station’s garage.

Peter Alviti: I don’t see a need, there’s no great amount of revenue we’re going to make from those people.

Jim Hummel: You may not see it, but the original planners’ whole cost structure was based on the assumption that by 2020, 1,100 people a day (will be parking there) and it’s going to offset all of that. That metric seems to have dissolved.

Alviti: How did that plan work out? Not so good.

Alviti says taking over the maintenance is part of a multi-phase process aimed at boosting overall ridership of the MBTA commuter trains that service the station. And he still has confidence the state can make the Wickford train service work.

“The next phase is finding the sweet spot and determining whether the cost of that ride from Wickford into Providence, let’s say, is the prohibitive aspect of it and we’ll be doing things during the next six months that will pressure test the cost sensitivity on a ticket price to determine whether we want to charge zero for it, the $4 we’re charging now or somewhere in between.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to www.HummelReport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at Jim@HummelReport.org.