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A Work In Progress

The Wickford Junction commuter train station opened last year with great fanfare - and predictions that 1,500 people a day will be using it by the year 2020. What didn't make the press release is that taxpayers are picking up most of the $500,000 a year tab for maintenance of a mammoth parking garage next door that sits virtually empty. This week Rhode island's Director of Transportation remains upbeat during his first-anniversary report card on the project.


Right on schedule, the 7:45 MBTA commuter train arrives at Wickford Junction,  where more than two dozen passengers hop on for the ride north- some heading to Warwick or Providence, others all the way up to Boston.

The rail service began with great fanfare a year ago, the culmination of more than a decade of planning - and a $44 million investment by taxpayers to build the station and an adjacent four-story 1,100 car parking garage. The garage itself accounted for $25 million of the total cost.

A year later, the MBTA-run service is attracting about 200 daily riders, most going to Boston. But just 80 people a day are paying the $4 parking rate needed to help offset a half a million dollar annual bill to maintain the mammoth garage. The state needs 500 vehicles parking - and paying - daily to break even.

Lewis: ``On the good news side the people who are using it absolutely love it, which is what we anticipated. You can work, you can read, you can sleep, you can converse, you can do whatever; you're not focusing on the driving and you don't have all of the stresses of driving.''

Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Michael Lewis says the commuter rail service is very much a work-in-progress - but he is satisfied so far with the numbers the trains are drawing most weekdays. There is no weekend service.

Lewis: ``The total numbers using it are less than we had hoped in the early years - we always knew this was going to take time and I'm not talking months. This is years to have the ridership grow to what predications were back when the project was planned.''

Those predictions are that 1,500 passengers will be riding daily out of Wickford Junction within seven years, and three-quarters of them will pay to park.

Lewis: ``But our estimates, with the growth, and with the employment growth expected in the Providence area and in the state over time, again  the 2020 projections - will be that the parking garage will be virtually full.''

It is a long way off from what we saw at the garage last week: on one day there were a total  of 71 cars on the first and second levels. The third level and the fourth, which is an outside deck, were totally empty.

Lewis says Wickford Junction is where the Providence train station was with MBTA commuter rail to Boston when it first started in the late '80s; and he's confident one day it will be where the Providence service is now.

Lewis: ``For the first 10 years it was very flat growth and then in the late '90s it just picked up astronomically. Now it's one of the highest ridership on the MBTA service. And we see that kind of growth in the extension over time  when people  get used to it.''

It is the taxpayers, though, who will have to pick up the tab until then.

That's because the state has a contract with a private company to maintain the garage. Lewis says the price is about $45,000 a month, more than half a million dollars per year.

It is a beautifully-landscaped facility, with extensive shrubbery... lush grass....and flowers planted around the garage.The interior of the garage is immaculate and looks much the way it did a year ago when it first opened.

But DOT figures show revenues generated by parking and concessions brought in just under $58,000 over the first 12 months - which means a federal grant the state secured had to pick up the remaining $442,000 in maintenance costs. That grant will run out within a year.

The revenue figures were lower than expected because the DOT offered free parking and rides on Wednesdays during February and March - one of the promotions Lewis is hoping will help bring in more passengers.

Lewis: ``We have to market this better, we still have to...there's a lot of people who still aren't away this exists.''

Hummel: ``So, in effect, give them a little taste of the ice cream so they'll buy the half gallon.''

Lewis: ``Right, right.''

Hummel: ``What's going to make somebody a year, two, three years down the line - as opposed to in that first year with all of that publicity - `I'm hopping the train at Wickford and not  only that that I'm going to park in the garage'"

Lewis: ``A couple  of things drive that.  First of  all, we are creatures of habit, if we're used to getting to work in our cars, it's inertia, it takes something to change. That changes over time, things that drive that, the initial pop you're talking about, then it's fuel prices, it's congestion, it's convenience. As the economy rebounds and we start to get more of the congestion back on (Route) 95 then you're going to see more of an impetus of people saying `You know  what, I'm not going to deal with the Thurbers Avenue curve anymore.'"

Lewis says there are also many passengers who are dropped off and don't pay for parking -something we saw frequently on our visits to the station last week. One day dozens of kids from a local elementary school in North Kingstown arrived for a field trip to Boston - an ideal use for the train service - but most of the those who came did not use the parking garage.

Hummel: ``You seem like the manger who's looking at 9-inning game and isn't worried about his pitcher getting rocked in the first couple innings.''

Lewis: `` I think that's pretty good analogy. It doesn't mean when somebody hits a triple off your starter, you're not wondering hmmm was this a good call.

But it's likely to be years down the line before we know for sure.

In Wickford, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.