The Hummel Report

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Savings With a Cost

When the state took over maintenance of the underperforming Wickford Junction Train Station in 2015, it did so specifically to save money. But the Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation admits it’s been a bumpy transition from a private company to state-control. The Hummel Report found broken elevators on two occasions and unshoveled stairways after a recent snowstorm. This week Jim Hummel finds out why - and gets some answers about the future of the struggling rail service out of Wickford.

 

Click here to see our original 2012 report on Wickford Junction, here for our 2013 report, here and here for the 2014 & 2015 updates.

 

SCRIPT:

It may have been the largest number of people ever to visit the Wickford Junction Train Station.

That opening day back in 2012 - when the band played, officials gathered and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation spent most of his time praising the Rhode Island Congressional delegation, while proclaiming the $44 million project a success -  even before the first train had officially taken off.

Instead it has been an albatross for the state - a four-story white elephant that never lived up to expectations and was costing taxpayers $800,000 a year just to maintain.

Alviti: ``It became a glaring example of some of the legacy issues that were passed on to us.’’

Peter Alviti said when he became DOT Director two years ago 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.

So 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 this ramp from the parking lot up to the end of the platform. Or to drive up to the second level and come in on the second floor - but not really knowing that if they were unfamiliar with the layout of the station.

The DOT put up these signs right after we inquired about the non-working elevators.

After a snowstorm earlier this month the main stairs leading up to the platform looked like this, when Alviti said a company it contracts with was supposed to have them shoveled.

Alviti: ``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 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.

The rest comes from contracting out some of the services and having certain maintenance tasks done in-house by DOT employees.

Alviti said under the new plan the state is now paying:

$40,000 a year for janitorial work

$25,000 for maintenance

And $30,000 for snow removal

For a total of $95,000, instead of the $489,000 it had been paying to Cioe.

But Alviti didn’t include any of the staff time allocated to the station by DOT workers; an elevator maintenance contract that the state is finally entering into or other maintenance items such as non-functioning lights in the garage.

The state in 2015 also built a new entrance to the station from Route 102 - at a cost of $370,000 - Alviti says to make it easier for RIPTA buses to get in and out. But the state had already$1.2 million dollars for a permanent easement when the station was opened in 2012. And for years it functioned just fine for traffic going in and out of the train station.

Alviti: ``Part of what we wanted to do was to divorce our operations from having to traverse over private property to get to our public facility and provide ourselves with our own state-owned entrance and exit to the facility for the buses and for automobiles.’’

Hummel: ``But that entrance wasn’t causing any problems was it?’’

Alviti: ``In order to get to a public facility you had to travel over private property.’’

Hummel: ``But you had an easement to get in there that you paid pretty good money for.’’

Alviti: ``We had an easement that we paid money for but we found it would be much more efficient for the buses to enter and exit in their own entrance nearer the facility than it would having to traverse the private roads.’’

Hummel: ``So it was worth, in your mind, another $400,000 for that entrance?’’

Alviti: ``Yes absolutely.’’

Hummel: ``Instead of the million dollars you paid to get that for that easement to go in?’’

Alviti: ``Correct.’’

And while it may be easier for the buses, we found many motorists using it as a cut through over to stores in the Wickford Junction plaza.

Then there are the elevators.

Alviti: ``Why are maintaining and operating 3 elevators in a building that 200 people a day use. The facility itself was certainly built to accommodate a much larger use that it is currently getting.’’

The department has already decided to not to repair this 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 to use the ramp leading to the end of the platform as it did during the recent breakdown.

Alviti’s predecessor, Director Michael Lewis told The Hummel Report in a 2012 interview about why the DOT was paying for a maintenance contract instead of doing it in-house as the department is attempting to do now.

Hummel: ``Quote: `We are not operators of transit systems or parking garages….’”

Lewis: ``…it’s not what we do best. Maintenance is not our strong point. And I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. That’s not what we’re funded to do. We’re about building highways and bridges.’’

Hummel: ```We’re about building highways and bridges.’ What do you say about that?”

Alviti: ``This department under Gov. Raimondo’s administration is about providing transportation systems in Rhode Island for the future, that both employ people now and create jobs now and create an economic environment for the future.’’

Hummel: ``Has the state given up on ever charging to park in that facility?’’

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

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

Alviti: ``How did that plan work out?’’

Hummel: ``Not so good.’’

Alviti: ``Not so good. It’s also about making a transit system efficient and cost effective and convenient to people and I don’t’ think any of those -y charging people parking to go there wasn’t exactly a kind of marketing genius. It was a disincentive for people to go there and use the transit system.’’

Alviti says taking over the maintenance is part of 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.

Alviti: ``And the next phase is finding the sweet spot and determining whether or not 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 do we want to charge zero for it, the $4 we’re charging now, or somewhere in between?;;

Hummel: ``So in terms of transit, though, stay tuned.’’

Alviti: ``In terms of transit…’’

Hummel: ``In terms of specifically getting Wickford Junction more attractive, more riders, whatever you think you need to change the formula.’’

Alviti: ``It’s our intent to take as many steps as necessary and the next one being testing the pressure point of how much a ticket costs to determine whether or not we can affect the ridership in a positive way.’’

In Wickford, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.