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Friday, March 3, 2023

RIDOT Director Alviti a shoo-in for re-confirmation

 Senate Finance hearing for RIDOT Director ignores concerns, hit-and-run victim’s story interrupted

By Steve Ahlquist, UpriseRI

At a Rhode Island Senate Finance Committee hearing this week, a hit-and-run victim’s testimony on the relationship between transportation and health was interrupted by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. 

The public’s concerns over the re-confirmation of Peter Alviti as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation were also left unaddressed. Despite opposition from all members of the public, Alviti’s re-confirmation was assured with an 8-0 vote.

“I was just trying to give my brief testimony,” said Hayley Buckey, who suffered a hit and run accident on North Main Street in Providence last October. Buckey spoke to Uprise RI after testifying before the Rhode Island Senate Finance Committee hearing to re-confirm Peter Alviti as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT).

“I had two main points. I was trying to make the relationship between transportation and health clear,” said Buckey. “Someone hit me in a crosswalk and I was reading from the [accident] report when I got interrupted [by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, North Providence).]

“It was kind of a weird feeling. I was surprised.”

Before the Senate Finance Committee took public comment on Director Alviti’s reconfirmation, Alviti had taken center stage at the hearing for over 90 minutes, delivering his comments and fielding questions from committee members. 

You can watch Alviti’s testimony and questioning before the committee here. Of the 20 members of the public who had waited patiently for their turn to testify, only 16 members could stay until they were called.

No one from the public ended up testifying in favor of Director Alviti’s re-confirmation. No transportation advocacy groups in Rhode Island publicly supported Director Alviti. 

Environmental groups interested in averting climate catastrophe, or at the very least interested in meeting the goals set in the Rhode Island’s Act on Climate legislation, like Climate Action Rhode Island, also opposed Alviti’s confirmation.

As Buckey read from the accident report she became emotional. “When I read the crash report I don’t feel emotional, I mostly feel annoyed and mad that it happened, but reading it out loud to other people made me a little emotional because I’m anticipating other people being sad,” said Buckey.

“They had to take me to the hospital, but other people have had worse outcomes.”

“Point of order!” interjected Senate President Ruggerio. “We’re here to hear testimony on the Director of the Department of Transportation. We’re not here to hear testimony on an accident that occurred or something like that unless DOT was negligent – I mean, c’mon here!”

The Senate President then slammed his cellphone on the table.

“Haley, you can continue on – move beyond the accident please,” said Senate Finance Chair Louis DiPalma (Democrat, District 12, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton), taking his cue from the Senate President.

“She has a point!” said Providence resident Gayle Gifford, who had previously testified against Alviti’s confirmation. The rest of those in the room opposing the re-confirmation erupted into protest and challenged Chair DiPalma’s decision. 

The Senate President cannot be heard but can be seen in the video angrily responding to those protesting, only to be reined in by quiet words and a hand on the shoulder by Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson (Democrat, District 19, Cumberland).

“This is the Senate Finance Committee,” said Senator DiPalma demanding order. “The committee will speak. Hayley continue.”

Buckey finished up her first point by saying the final line she intended to say, then moved onto the rest of her testimony.

It’s hard to understand why the Senate President lost his temper in the hearing room. (The Senate President did not reply to a request to Uprise RI for comment.) 

Since Governor Daniel McKee re-nominated him, the re-confirmation of Peter Alviti, despite the testimony of every member of the public in strong opposition, was assured. 

In the end, all eight members of the committee – including Senator Samuel Zurier (Democrat, District 3, Providence) who represented many of the East Side residents who spoke in opposition to Alviti’s continued leadership at RIDOT – voted in favor. His re-confirmation now moves onto the full Senate where he will be easily and overwhelmingly confirmed.

During questioning, some Senators posed serious questions to Director Alviti about his eight years as Director of RIDOT, though most of the questioning was perfunctory.

Senator Zurier asked the Director if he believes that the Act on Climate goals on reducing emissions from highway vehicles is “an attainable goal.”

Alviti sidestepped the question.

“Whether or not I believe it is probably less important than if the science and the data tells us that that is the fact,” said Alviti. “And we’re investigating that now. Up until now there have been no good ways to either model or predict what kind of scenarios, if employed, would result in what kind of reductions. It’s new science that didn’t exist before…”

“Is it going to be DOT’s policy to hit the 45% goals for highway vehicles by 2030?” asked Senator Zurier, drilling down.

“I think that there are a lot of factors that that depends on,” said Director Alviti. “It doesn’t just take, for example, taking half our budget and spending it on alternative methods of transportation because, as I said before, the actual demand base is with the users…”

“I hope you share the sense of urgency that we had when my colleagues enacted the Act on Climate legislation,” said Senator Zurier.

“I do,” asserted Director Alviti. Members of the public in the room listening to Alviti’s answers were not convinced.

Below are excerpts from the testimony brought to the committee by the 16 members of the public who showed up and waited their turn to testify.

“We have to stop prioritizing discretionary funds used for highway expansion,” said transportation advocate Barry Schiller. Schiller noted that discretionary funds should be used to advance the goals of the Transit Master Plan. Schiller also criticized RIDOT’s communication with transit advocacy groups, which for the last eight years has not happened.

“We think Rhode Island’s transportation system is outdate and overly auto-centric, and that it has been failing, in many ways, to keep pace with the needs of our residents, our economy and our planning,” said Scott Wolf from Grow Smart RI. We need a DOT Director who supports a much more aggressive implementation of the Transit Master Plan. According to RIPTA, implementing the TMP would achieve 80% of Rhode Island’s Climate Action target or reducing vehicle miles traveled.”

“We are concerned that RIDOT is focusing on a 20th Century auto-centric mindset when we really need a 21st Century approach,” said Patricia Raub from RI Transit Riders.

“Director Alviti hasn’t fully embraced the Act on Climate,” said Peter Brussard from Rhode Island Association of Railroad Passengers. “Highway widening projects are detrimental at the expense of other modes [of transportation].”

“We need visionary leadership to take us places we thought we could never go, and we have to do it now,” said Providence resident Gayle Gifford. “We need leadership that expresses that.”

“When we asked DOT to fix North Main Street because Zachary Richardson lost his life there, we get responses that are not humane,” said Providence resident Valerie Reishuk, who is a senior citizen who does not drive. “When we speak to DOT about pedestrian death, the answers we … don’t get compassion and we don’t get that forward thinking that so many have talked about here tonight.”

“RIDOT has lied to the public about the impacts of road infrastructure projects and later admitted that they have no methodology to actually measure them which meant that it was impossible for Peter Alviti to be sure that he was following the Act on Climate,” said Providence resident Cedric Yee, who is under the age of 16 and cannot drive. 

“Back in 2020 Mr. Alviti and RIDOT knew about the dumping of contaminated soil in the dense, working class residential neighborhood as part of the 6/10 reconstruction project, and they let it happen under their watch then he intentionally lied and mislead the public in statements and interviews in an attempt to cover up the illegal activity.”

“Trying to traverse nearly any of the DOT controlled streets or intersections outside of a care is a hostile and dangerous task,” said Sean.

“All of the leading organizations in the state that speak for cyclists, transit riders and pedestrians oppose his re-nomination,” said Christian Roselund. Read Roselund’s oped, “Why Peter Alviti Must Go” at UpriseRI.

“We know that our ability to meet the Act on Climate goals depends largely on transitioning to electric vehicle, reducing vehicle miles traveled through increasingly effective public transit and safer, broader infrastructure for non-car transport,” said Alexander Neidich on behalf of Climate Action Rhode Island. “Under Director Alviti’s leadership RIDOT has deprioritized or openly opposed all of the above.”

“Under Alviti, RIDOT has allowed the Bicycle Mobility Plan to languish, despite trying to take credit for it here tonight. The projects the Director tried to take credit for tonight are largely recreational greenways and are not designed with transportation or equity in mind” said Pawtucket resident Dylan Gyles.

“We invite Director Alviti to help us respond to the 60% of the population who would ride bikes if they felt safe,” said Newport resident Bari Freeman, Director of Bike Newport, presented a more nuanced view criticizing Director Alviti’s policies but stressing the hope to work with him in the future..

“If we want to reduce the soaring costs of ongoing road maintenance, and meet our climate goals, we have to invest in non-car transportation,” said Providence resident Michael Kearney. “Mr Alviti said earlier that he’s waiting for change on non-car transportation. That doesn’t make sense. We can’t wait for people to use bike lanes and transit that don’t exist.”

“If Peter Alviti doesn’t believe in induced demand, the closest thing we have to a law in transportation planning, that trouble me very much” said Providence resident Evan Morman, a transportation engineer.

One more note:

The Senate Finance Committee meeting was attended by Senate President Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson, who are ex officio members of every committee. 

Often times, it is believed that the presence of Senate leadership at such proceedings is a thumb on the scales, weighting the committee towards an outcome leadership desires. On close votes, it is sometimes the presence of ex officio leadership that might tilt the scales.

Senator Frank Ciccone (Democrat, District 7, North Providence) took exception to this characterization of the Senate President and Majority Leader’s presence at the committee meeting.

“They sit in on almost every advice and consent,” said Senator Ciccone. “And to say that the fact that they’re here is going to affect the way that we vote… I think that statement is totally irrelevant. [The Senate President] is here because he has a right to be here and he sits in on the advice and consent of every Director and Judge. So let’s make that clear. He doesn’t influence anyone here on how they vote.”

The Senate Finance Committee passed Director Alviti’s reconfirmation 8-0.

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