Council to consider proposals from RIPTA, taxi operators

Thu, 02/11/2021 - 6:00pm
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The Town Council is looking at two proposals submitted for a possible island transit service this summer season: one from R.I. Public Transit Authority, and one formed by the Commission for Motor Vehicles for Hire and island taxi operators.

On Wednesday, Feb. 3, RIPTA presented its proposal to the Town Council for a public transit pilot program on the island. RIPTA would provide two trolleys measuring at 35 feet long and nine feet wide for the 2021 summer season. On Tuesday, Feb. 9, MVFH Chair Brad Marthens and taxi owner Judy Clark introduced an alternative proposal to the council for an island-based shuttle service using a standard van measuring 21 feet long and six feet wide.

A vote will be made on Wednesday, Feb. 17 by the council for either the RIPTA proposal or the proposal presented by the MVFH and taxi operators. RIPTA will need a decision by March 1, in order to start preparing for shuttle operations by mid-June.

The following discussions below are broken down by the recent meetings between the Town Council, RIPTA, and taxi owners and operators. 

At the Feb. 3 meeting, Town Manager Maryanne Crawford, who first announced the possibility of a transit program on Jan. 20, introduced RIPTA’s Chief Executive Officer Scott Avedisian and Chief of Strategic Advancement Greg Nordin, who have been developing the pilot program.

“When I came to RIPTA [in 2018],” said Avedisian, “your former town manager had reached out to Greg and had conversations with trying to comply with the spirit of your [2016 New Shoreham] Comprehensive Plan. We did meet numerous times with the town manager then, and then Maryanne came into the role. The Governor’s office had some interest last summer when Maryanne and I talked. We dusted off the work that we had done with the previous town manager, sent it off and started some discussion on possibilities and what it could look like.”

RIPTA’s proposed transit service would operate Friday to Monday every week from mid-June through Labor Day. The proposal suggests establishing one or two possible routes that connect popular destinations on the island: Old Harbor, New Harbor, and Fred Benson Town Beach, with the Block Island State Airport and the Southeast Light and bluffs under consideration.

“This proposal is meant to accomplish six goals in the summer on the island,” said Nordin. “One of these goals – most importantly – is to improve overall safety.” The other five goals are: reduce road congestion; reduce the number of vehicles visitors bring to the island; provide options in transportation; improve access and mobility for seniors and the disabled; and be consistent with the 2016 New Shoreham Comprehensive Plan.

Nordin added several items will need to be determined as well, including destinations, bus stop locations, and fares. RIPTA would finalize the route by early March, continuing to work with town staff to identify bus stop locations, and work with Interstate Navigation to reach an agreement on transporting RIPTA vehicles and staff.

When asked for the carrying capacity for the trolleys, Nordin said the vehicles can carry 30 passengers, with a standing load of up to 50 people. But being in a pandemic, Nordin noted the capacity has been cut down to follow social distancing and health protocols.

“Our buses are currently at 20 people,” said Nordin. Jumping forward to the Feb. 9 meeting, Crawford addressed a question that had been asked during public input as to whether RIPTA has a trolley shorter than the one being discussed.

“A typical RIPTA bus is 40 feet. The trolley is 35 feet but we selected that for the added character and look,” said Crawford. “RIPTA does have a 15-passenger transit vehicle that is slightly less wide at eight to eight-and-a-half feet, depending on the specific vehicle. With current Covid-19 regulations, RIPTA can only transport four passengers on these vehicles,” said Crawford.

Councilor Keith Stover and Second Warden Sven Risom expressed appreciation for RIPTA coming forth with a proposal, while also recognizing the size of the trolley may be a challenge for the roads on the island.

“I really think you can’t underestimate on some parts of this route, what those roads look like. It is not unusual to have walkers, bicyclers, and moped operators parallel to one another while cars are trying to move,” said Stover.

Taxi operators and owners expressed their concerns about the pilot program during the public comment period, stating the program would take away services and opportunities from the taxi operators. Some also argued that the program would not reduce vehicular congestion on the island.

“How is this going to reduce congestion, because people will still use vehicles?” asked Marthens. “I’m not sure this is the year to do it when there are so many things going on out there. You can’t take that many people on the bus [during a pandemic]. The taxi license holders were constrained by R.I. Department of Health guidelines as well.”

At the Feb. 9 Town Council meeting, Marthens and Clark presented an alternative proposal, created by Clark, for a possible island-based shuttle service for the coming summer season.

“It’s a suggested program,” said Marthens, noting the MVFH and taxi operators had made a commitment to “come up with something.”

“I want to emphasize that this is something that we want to work with effectively,” said Marthens.

Clark said: “We would like to commit to the Town Council and to the people of Block Island to put a shuttle on for this summer. My first thing I wanted to say – I’m going to donate my 15-passenger van for this purpose. I wanted to start the process and it can be worked on. I would like to see all the taxis look at it, decide if this or that should be changed. All the details are written down to benefit the taxi [owners] and the people of the island.”

“It would be a temporary, experimental thing we can all work on, and improve on, and see how it goes. This will be a separate [service] operated by all the taxi owners or their drivers. The van, the one I have been using, is a standard van – 21 feet long and six feet wide,” said Clark. She added schedules, stops and routes would be worked out in the proposal, and suggested an electric vehicle could be involved in the future as a second shuttle.

Boudreau asked Clark how many passengers could fit into her van under Covid-19 regulations and protocols.

“What is the Covid-19 rules for a bus as opposed to a taxi? From my point of view, our endeavor here is to move people around as efficiently as possible. I’m wondering what can fit in a Block Island cab that is safe,” said Boudreau.

The council also expressed interests in moving people around more efficiently, and to have a service that is run and managed locally on the island. During the public comment period, many residents and taxi operators expressed support for keeping a possible shuttle operation local, and to work out a plan with the taxi operators and businesses.

Crawford stated she would be meeting with Marthens, Clark, and Town Planner Alison Ring to continue discussions on Clark’s proposal.

Marthens responded “I want to say that we hear what you are saying and welcome the opportunity with some of the taxi license holders to sit down and meet with Maryanne. You are getting a commitment from all of us locally. It might be a bit of a stretch but we will do our best. There is a commitment there.”