The state had hoped 10 years ago that if they built it, the commuter train riders would come.
We were there, in ay of 2012, for the dedication of the Wickford Junction Train Station: with a band, balloons - and a bevy of politicians all patting each other on the back about what a great job they’d done - with predictions that this station would be a model for others across the country.
But those rosy ridership numbers never materialized; and the $44-million project, with an 1,100-vehicle parking garage, has been an ongoing financial albatross for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which is charged with overseeing the facility. It was built to accommodate MBTA trains from Wickford Junction to Boston and back, with stops in Warwick, Providence and Mansfield along the way.
Alviti: “Just the operation maintenance, not counting what it cost to build it, and the MBTA cost that we pay every year, just the cost to maintain it was $600,000.”
Peter Alviti Jr. became DOT Director three years after the ribbon was cut. One of his first moves was to get out of that costly maintenance contract and have his own people handle it, at a third of the cost.
With reduced maintenance, the DOT abandoned the original plan to charge $4 for parking and a concession stand on the second floor to generate revenue. In the early days barely 100 people used the train on an average day, and the site of an empty garage was commonplace.
Hummel: “The the ship sailed a long time ago on being able to charge for parking, didn’t it?”
Alviti: “It did, it wasn’t making any sense. It was a deterrent to people both using the parking garage and also using the transit feature. And I think that played a role in encouraging people, they could drive their car to Providence and park there at a much high rate, or get free parking here and take the train into Providence. And we eliminate cars on Route 95 and we made more useful purpose for the building itself.”
DOT tried a pilot program offering free fares and has made the garage available for URI students and faculty to hop a RIPTA bus for the 12-mile commute the Kingston campus.
Alviti: “URI was doing a lot of construction on their campus, so they came to us and discussed the prospect of maybe utilizing some of that parking garage for their students, then creating a bus hub that would transport their students from Wickford Station to URI.”
Alviti said there had been a steady rail ridership in the year leading up the pandemic in 2020, with more than 500 trips - 250 round trips - per day.
Alviti: “We went from under 100 trips per day, to at its peak, before pandemic almost 600 in the summer months. Every year we were gaining passengers.”
Hummel: “And what do you attribute that to? Why do you think there was growth on that?”
Alviti: “Well because of the things we were doing. We did them incrementally. I think we brought more activity to it by moving the park and ride there, by moving the bus hub there, and that attracted people to it, and made it more useful.”
Johnson: “Driving up there I cheated death repeatedly, especially in the afternoon coming home.”
Robert Johnson is the type of passenger the state is trying to lure. Johnson got a job in Boston a year ago and drove every day for the first three months.
Johnston: “Sometimes it would take two hours to get home and some days I had up to three and half hours to drive home. Because if you got stuck in traffic, it was over. You just couldn’t get by. You were a mess, once you got to work, and at night when I came home I was tied in knots for about two hours before I could calm down.”
His wife saw enough and bought him a rail pass.
Johnston: “I saw an accident right in front of me, tractor trailer pulling over into a lane, a small car was in his blind spot. And I saw him take out that car, luckily they didn’t get seriously injured, but had I been up a little closer, a little bit farther that would have been me and I said no more.”
This was his view from the train over the summer, allowing him to relax and get some work done on his way to Boston.
Johnson: “I can do my text messages, my emails, I can do reports, read and review reports, alarm reports from overnight. I can do just about anything that I can do in my office or remotely, I just do it all on the train.”
Alviti: “The contrast to the Wickford station is the new one we’re building in Pawtucket. That’s a tale of two train stations.”
That station, on the Pawtucket/Central Falls line is set to open later this year. Alviti says it has everything now that planners hoped Wickford Junction would turn into.
There is development already surrounding the station and more in the works because the transit center is about to open. The DOT will make improvements for pedestrians and bikers also.
Alviti: “There we have a very density kind of development in and around the train station. The development that’s already taking place there even before the doors are open - and we expected late December/early January to open the doors to the first trains leaving.”
Hummel: “And that’s MBTA trains.”
Alviti: “MBTA trains.”
Hummel: “It’s just an adjustment of the schedule, a stop in Pawtucket added.”
Alviti: “That’s it.”
Hummel: “Just by three or four or five minutes.”
Alviti: “That’s correct. But also in the new construction we’re doing, we’re incorporating a bus hub there for Day 1. So you’ve go buses, you’ve got the trains and you’ve got this high density kind of zoning in and around the station that is already attracting new development already before the train station is open.”
As for Wickford Junction, he says the jury is still out.
Alviti: “ (Ridership) has been slowly climbing up over the last year and a half or so, and if you take a line and draw it through that increase it may be a couple of years before we full regain pre-pandemic kind of customer base.”
Hummel: “I know it’s a crystal ball question, but as gas continues to go back up and it probably go on that trend, traffic as that drive to Boston is just a nightmare, are you optimistic that’s going to force people to the trains, or you just can’t tell?”
Alviti: “I’m neither optimistic or pessimistic. I’m pretty much a realist when it comes to this kind of stuff. And there’s no real way for us to gauge it. We’ve looked for data and studies and information that would give us guidance on what we can expect to happen with that loss in ridership and how quickly it will return.”
Alviti says there’s no definitive answer.
Bob Johnson says he’ll never go back to the car, and hopes others join him on the train:
Johnson: “Come and enjoy life, sit on the train. The best part of the trip for me coming home is coming through Pawtucket, when you first see the traffic on 95 that’s all backed up and some of us feel the urge to wave as we go by because everybody is backed up for miles. We come through Providence, you can see all the traffic backed up for miles and we just keep going.”
In Wickford, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.