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Saturday, February 18, 2023

Ruckus at RIPTA

Senate President calls for resignation of RIPTA CEO

By Steve Ahlquist, UpRiseRI

Fung and Avedisian (Cranston Herald)
At 5:30pm on a Friday, Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, North Providence) released a statement calling for Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) CEO Scott Avidisian to step down and is submitting legislation to put the agency under the control of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and its Director, Peter Alviti.

RIPTA has been plagued by enduring challenges that have only grown more severe over the years.,” said the Senate President in his statement. “Despite federal funding that presented an unprecedented opportunity to make necessary reforms, there has been no change in direction. Foreseeable challenges, such as a driver shortage at the start of the school year, were left unaddressed until there was a crisis. There have been unacceptable management gaffes, such as the granting a no-bid lobbying contract to a political ally, apparently without the Board’s knowledge. No meaningful plan to confront the agency’s fiscal challenges has been presented to the General Assembly, and we are again faced with putting band aids on a gaping wound.

A quality, well-functioning public transit system is vital to the people of our state and our economy. It is time for wholesale reform at RIPTA.

The time has come to place the agency under the auspices of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, and I will be submitting legislation to that effect. I am asking that CEO Scott Avedisian step down immediately, and that the governor conduct a national search for someone with expertise in transit to head Rhode Island’s public transit office, under this new structure.

Finally, I have asked Chairman Mark McKenney (Democrat, District 30, Warwick) to convene the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics & Oversight to conduct an oversight hearing of the agency. “

RIPTA Boardmember Patrick Crowley, who is also the Secretary-Treasurer of the RI AFLCIO, tweeted his support for the Senate President’s ideas.

Transportation advocates, like Rhode Island Transit Riders, however, are wary about putting RIPTA under Director Alviti, calling the Director “car-centric,” citing his history of not truly engaging with the public on transportation matters, and not taking climate concerns seriously. 

Christian Rosalund published an oped in Uprise RI, calling on the Senate to not re-confirm Director Alviti for another term running RIDOT, but given the Senate President’s enthusiastic support and his ironclad grip on the chamber, that re-confirmation is all but assured.

Scott Avidisian had spent early Friday at GrowSmart RI‘s Transit-Oriented Development forum where he was introduced by GrowSmarts’ Executive Director Scott Wolf as a”long time champion of community revitalization and expanding forms of transportation choices for all Rhode Islanders.” Wolf added that under Avidisian RIPTA has been a model on how state agencies “can and should engage with the public and with stakeholders.”

At that same GrowSmart forum Rhode Island’s Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi expressed friendship and support for Avidisian, saying that the being the CEO of RIPTA is “not an easy job. Everybody wants service, nobody wants to pay for it. Everybody wants free RIPTA. There’s no free. It may be free for the people who ride it but it still costs the rest of us taxpayers [Editor’s Note: Bus riders are also RI taxpayers]. Avidisian has done a good job, as best as he can. We’re going to continue to give Scott the resources he needs. We will continue to look at ways to be smart and productive regarding affordable housing, transit-oriented housing… they are not separate issues. They can all co-exist.”

Shekarchi’s comments, of course, were made hours before the Senate President issued his press release.

There is a lot at stake, and the timing of the Senate President’s statement is telling. The federal government just passed the largest investment in public transportation and infrastructure in decades, and the head of RIPTA will be instrumental in determining how those funds are spent. Whoever controls these funds will shape the course of transportation in Rhode Island for generations to come.

This is the response RIPTA issued defending Avedisian:

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