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A Hummel Report Investigation

All Abord

The new Wickford Junction train station opened with great fanfare last week, extending commuter rail service to South County. The $44 million project includes an 1,100-car parking garage. This week, Jim Hummel sits down with the director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to talk about the facility - and ongoing operational costs taxpayers could be on the hook for if it's not as successful as officials are predicting.

 

SCRIPT

There was a band.

Balloons.

And a bevy of politicians.

All wanting to get in on last month's grand opening of the Wickford junction commuter rail station.

At times it took on the air of a pep rally, as hundreds of people joined U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and the entire Rhode Island congressional delegation to celebrate the first day of MBTA rail service to the southern part of the state.

LaHood: ``This project is being funded today out of the stimulus money and so all of those 30-second commercial you may have seen during the last campaign about the fact the stimulus didn't work were wrong. It worked. Look  at it. Here we are...''

The total cost of the project was $44 million.

And while federal tax dollars covered $36 million of it, the state's taxpayers kicked in $8 million in bond money, which means there will be interest costs as well.

The project has been decades in the making and resulted from a public/private partnership between the state of Rhode Island and Bob Cioe, who developed the adjacent Wickford Junction shopping center. The state paid Cioe $3.2 million for the land that houses the four-level, 1,100-space parking garage. Cioe's company will also be paid to operate the facility.

Hummel: ``It's in his business interests also  to have this developed, is it not?''

Lewis: ``I absolutely think it is.''

We sat down last week with D.O.T Director Michael Lewis to take a closer look at how the project came together - and the total cost to taxpayers.

Lewis: ``The only way you can pull these things off it has to be a win-win.  We are not operators of transit systems or parking garages.

It's not what the state does 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.

So by partnering with this private entity that is responsible for maintaining the facility in the same way that he maintains his private development  it becomes a place that people want to go to. It's not going to be `I'm afraid to go to the Wickford train station after dark,  'cause who knows what's going on there.' Or the trash is overflowing. It's: `I feel very comfortable going to Wickford station and I can get a coffee before I get on the train and you know what when I come home from work I need to stop at WalMart and that works out great for me.'''

At a news conference a week before the first day of service Lewis appeared with Sen. Jack Reed, who alone secured nearly $33 million in federal tax money over the past decade for the project.

What you don't see in the press releases is how much it will cost taxpayers to maintain the station. The state is paying Cioe's company a $15,000 per month management fee.

It is also paying a $15,300 monthly parking operator fee.

And an estimated $8,400/month electric bill.
Throw in trash and snow removal, landscaping and other costs and the bill to maintain the facility comes to $56,000 a month.

That's $672,000 a year.

The D.O.T. is banking on the $4/day parking fee and other revenue generated from concessions inside the station to initially generate up to $10,000 a month.

That still leaves the state responsible for more than half a million dollars in operating expenses every year. A spokesman tells the Hummel Report D.O.T applied for a federal grant to cover those costs.

Lewis: ``They are our operator, the fares from the parking garage go to maintain the parking garage. So that goes into a trust fund, all of  the fares that are collected, all of the revenues from the coffee sales, they go into a protected account that the state controls. From that account, we pay Cioe an operating fee to run it."

Hummel: ``I'm assuming you have a contract with him to pay him X  number of dollars, regardless of what that fund is. If the revenues are not making that, is  the state on the hook still for paying that.''

Lewis: ``Yep, in the agreement we all recognize that this will be a startup. It's not going to be Day No. 1 - 1,500 people. People have to get used to it, people are dedicated to their cars.

Some people don't know Wickford  Junction exist, even after all of the hoopla.''

Because Amtrak owns the Northeast rail corridor the state had to pay the railroad to do all of the work along the tracks, including signaling and installation of the 850-foot platform, which contributed to the total cost of $44 million. The parking garage itself and the roads leading in and out -  built by a private company - cost about $25 million. There is a charging station in the garage for Hybrid cars and a glass elevator spanning the four levels.

And  a lot of room for parking.

Hummel: ``There will be some people who will say do you have to build something of this magnitude to get people to take transit, when in Massachusetts there are stops all along the way you don't see any of  this. What's your response to that?"

Lewis: ``The 128 station is vast compared to what this is, you build a building because it takes up a lot less land space. In order to cover 1,100 cars you need a lot of land.''

Hummel: ``You go up.''

Lewis: ``You go up. This facility is going to be here for 100 years.''

Hummel: ``What do you say to the person who looks at that and says 1,100 spaces. This place is humongous. Do we need  something this big?

Lewis: ``Well, first of all I would say that's 1,100 cars that are not on Route 4 and Route 95. I think that's a good thing.We built in capacity to the foundation that we can go up two more floors. I think that in time that's going to be maxed out and people are going to be looking for more space there.''

We also asked Lewis about the state's predictions for ridership in the future.

Hummel: ``Ten years from  now, in 2022, or 2020....''

Lewis: ``2020.''

Hummel: ``So 8 years from now, the projections are there will be 1,500 cars and I imagine that's how you decided on how big the building was going to be. Who comes up with that?''

Lewis: ``We have a person in the basement in a dark room with a glass ball and we go down and ask her on occasion when we knock, what do you think?''

Hummel: ``If she answers."

Lewis: ``If she answers, but we're not going to press that. But no, Statewide Planning does all of the projections. This is not... we follow a very regimented format that ties in demographics, ties in the economy and statewide planning gives it a model, it's actually a computer model that all  states are required to have.''

Hummel: ``What about the building itself, $24 million for in effect a parking deck. Now I realize you have amenities, heat and whatever, but it's a lot of concrete and it's 1,100 spots and it's $24 million. So what about the people who say that's a heck of a lot for a parking garage?''

Lewis: ``You know it's about $7 million less than we thought it was going to be.''

Hummel: ``Should that make me feel better?''

Lewis: ``It should make you feel $7 million better. You know, nothing is  free, nobody gives these  things away. You don't take them off the shelf at Home Depot, they're on sale or something. Public transportation facilities are expensive. People look at the capital cost of the project, you know $44 million. What do you get for $44 million? I was thinking about this yesterday: how do you compare that to something? If were were to - it's about 20 miles between Wickford and Providence. If we were to repave, which we'll eventually have to do, just repave  I-95,  not rebuild I-95,not do any bridges on I-95, just the riding surface, that 20 miles would cost about $60 million.''

 ``I had nothing to do with the planning of this. I was not even a glimmer in the eye of Rhode Island when this was planned. I absolutely think it's the right thing to do. It provides that access to the Boston market for people. You live in South County and really look for job opportunities in Boston and vice versa.''

In Wickford, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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