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By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer
By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer
When Boston venture-capital firm Braemar Energy Ventures was deciding where to relocate a West Coast smart-grid company it had just purchased, high-speed and commuter train service helped give Providence an edge.
“Boston is the epicenter for tech talent and it’s just 35 minutes away on the Acela,” said Braemar partner Scott DePasquale, who eventually settled the company, UtiliData, in offices on Westminster Street.
Business leaders who feel efficient rail links are an important part of Rhode Island’s economic competitiveness have applauded the state’s move this spring to kick-start long overdue repairs to the Providence train station and its infrastructure.
They also support a decision by Amtrak to revise the concept route for its planned “next-generation” 200-plus-mph, high-speed rail corridor to include a stop in Providence, instead of bypassing the capital for a northerly path through Woonsocket.
Although the next-generation, high-speed line to Boston is still a minimum of 30 years away and faces numerous funding hurdles, Rhode Island transportation planners want to make sure Providence isn’t left out.
That includes plans announced this month to use $3 million in federal stimulus funds on studies of potential improvements to the Providence station’s tracks and tunnel to eliminate bottlenecks and streamline the passage of freight, commuter and intercity trains.
“We need to figure out a way to make all the trains move through without anyone being restricted,” said Stephen Devine, chief of intermodal planning for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. “With South County service coming on, freight and Acela, the more we can keep trains moving and not sitting the better.”
Although the track and tunnel improvements are not directly connected to Amtrak’s next-generation, high-speed rail plans, making the Providence station more efficient and attractive would only benefit the state’s long-term transit vision.
“I think the state and Providence need to be prepared for the next generation of high-speed rail and on that we will be working with Amtrak, [which is] talking about 200- to 225-mph trains on a brand new right of way,” Devine said. “This is a great opportunity to ask how this impacts Providence. My goal is to set the stage in the event that the next generation of high speed goes through and make sure we have a plan.”
Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole said in an e-mail that the national passenger rail service has “revised our conceptual plans to reflect a route through Providence,” but cautioned that designing the project is at such an early stage that much could still change.
Cole declined to say what had caused the revision or whether lobbying from local officials had played a part.
The initial concept route for the next generation line, released in a September 2010 report, used a more northerly, Woonsocket route because of its straighter line from Hartford to Boston. By skipping the winding coastal section of the current Northeast corridor tracks, the new next-generation line was expected to reduce travel time between Washington and Boston to less than three hours.
Under whatever final high-speed route is chosen, Amtrak’s current Northeast corridor and Acela service to stations bypassed by the new line, such as the Connecticut coast, would continue.
But the prospect of being left out of a faster business-traveler-friendly connection to New York and Boston, plus a new connection with Hartford, wasn’t well received in the Capital City.
“Providence Station now has 1 million passengers a year and is the 15th busiest station in the entire Amtrak system, so hopefully they would want to keep it on any route,” said Daniel Baudouin, executive director of The Providence Foundation, the business-backed group that helped drive the redevelopment of the train station and Capital Center area.
“We are very supportive of any improved transit effort and are glad to see MBTA service opened to Wickford [Junction Station in North Kingstown],” Baudouin said. “A lot of people do not have cars and a lot travel between Massachusetts and Rhode Island. If we can make a stronger connection to Massachusetts, that would be great. They have such a vibrant economy and talented workforce.”
With nothing against Woonsocket, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laurie White thinks stopping in Providence makes more sense.
“Providence being the capital and having substantial amounts of infrastructure at the station, connectivity to the airport and Boston would make sense,” White said. “Having a central location would be very important as a center of commerce and transportation.”
In addition to potential track alterations, the high-speed rail study will also look at other shortcomings of the station, which opened in 1986, including parking and confusing connections between the platform, streets and bus connections.
That work ties in with the $5 million to $6 million in building repairs and exterior renovations that RIDOT has planned and is currently searching for money to pay for. The agency has so far committed $1 million to the project.
That project would include reconstruction of the downtown-facing entrance plaza, which is plagued by drainage issues, is not compliant with federal disability codes and in recent years has become obscured by new development, concrete barriers and trees.
“Part of the confusion of the station is no one knows which is the front door,” Devine said. “The downtown side will continue to remain a drop-off area while Gaspee Street is for busses and taxis. Under the proposed plan we are hoping to enhance the info and signage inside to better direct people.”
On the Gaspee Street side of the station, a new bus and taxi drop-off lane would be created and new bicycle racks, pathways to the Providence Place mall, landscaping and sitting areas would attempt to make the spacious area facing the Statehouse more attractive.
Just as important, the cracked limestone on the side of the building that’s given the structure a decrepit look for the past several years would be fixed.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said construction of the Wickford Station in North Kingstown had come in under initial estimates and he is working on having as much as $1 million saved on that project redirected to the Providence station.
Some planning and transit observers have expressed disappointment that the short-term renovations do not tackle some of the more fundamental design issues with the station, especially connecting it to downtown and simplifying links to busses.
Among the issues that have slowed upgrades to the Providence station is the complicated ownership structure: Amtrak owns the tracks and station itself, the city owns the streets and outside spaces and Capital Properties owns the parking garage. The Mass. Bay Transportation Authority owns the commuter trains running to the station and DOT sets policy and provides funding.
Everett Stuart, chairman of the Rhode Island Association of Railroad Passengers, said these layers of stakeholders will continue to make change at the station a slow process, but his group is encouraged by DOT’s effort to jump-start improvements.
“We are really excited that they are finally getting off the dime and getting enhancement dollars to parlay into other funds,” Stuart said. “There are folks who would like to see more elaborate changes, but this presumably would get back to where it was and would improve flow for taxis and busses.” •