South County rail ridership far short of expectations

Senator Reed defends $45M taxpayer investment in little-used Wickford train station

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – Ridership at South County’s new Wickford Junction commuter rail station remains far below projections used to secure funding for the multimillion-dollar project and will likely fail to meet expectations, according to a Target 12 review of transportation data.

Service started at the Wickford Junction station in April 2012. The latest ridership figures supplied by the R.I. Department of Transportation show 391 people used it on an average weekday as of last September, up from 338 a year earlier.

By comparison, the 2005 South County Commuter Rail Service operations plan – which was used to build support for the effort – forecast daily ridership at Wickford Junction would hit 3,386 by 2020. To meet those projections, ridership would have to increase by 776% over the next five years.

A review of RIDOT documents shows the ridership projection was commissioned from consultants at Cambridge Systematics in 1995 – and never got revised over the subsequent two decades. An updated forecasting model that was supposed to be finished by the end of last year is still under development, RIDOT spokeswoman Rose Amoros told Target 12.

The Cambridge Systematics projection was used to help secure millions of dollars in federal funding to build Wickford Junction, which includes a four-story, 1,100-space parking garage.

The North Kingstown stop is currently the end of the line for the MBTA-managed South County Commuter Rail, though Amoros said additional commuter rail stops in Kingston and Westerly “remain under study today.” Both stations are already served by Amtrak. The agency is also examining South County route stops in Cranston, East Greenwich and West Davisville, documents show.

The Wickford Junction project cost taxpayers $44.7 million and was pitched in part as a way to relieve highway congestion. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, one of the project’s biggest champions and a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, secured nearly $33 million in federal funding for it between 1998 and 2009.

In an interview earlier this month, Reed conceded it appears unlikely that ridership at Wickford Junction will meet the ridership expectations projected for 2020, and he put much of the blame for that on the Great Recession.

“Property values fell, projected growth in the area diminished and that’s one factor I think that still has a significant effect on ridership,” Reed told Target 12. “We shouldn’t be satisfied with ridership, but I think we should be aware this is a long-term asset that can benefit the state environmentally in terms of traffic congestion, and hopefully will be something we can use to sell [to] business, individuals into that area of Rhode Island.”

Reed said it can take a while for ridership to increase, pointing as an example to what happened after the MBTA began serving Providence in 1988.

“Back when service was first introduced on a regular basis in the late 1980s in Providence, there were roughly 200 passengers a day,” Reed said. “Now it’s one of the most popular stations along the whole route, about 2,300 passengers a day. So I think we can build that and we must build it.”

While Wickford Junction’s numbers are far from hitting the mark, the projections for departures and arrivals at the T.F. Green Airport stop in Warwick were far more modest and appear to be on track to meet expectations.

The Cambridge Systematics projection was for T.F. Green to average 529 daily departures and arrivals by 2020. The most recent ridership figures from RIDOT show 412 passengers used the airport stop on an average weekday.

Construction of the T.F. Green train station – where commuter rail service started in December 2010 – was included in the $267 million cost of the InterLink project, Amoros said.

Reed said he thinks the Wickford stop needs to be marketed better, and he proposed an increase in the number of trips a day to attract more riders. He acknowledged the idea seems “counterintuitive,” but cited the history of Metro-North Commuter Railroad, which serves New York City and its suburbs.

“By putting more trains on more frequently at off-hours, not just at rush hour, they were able to grow the ridership,” Reed said. “I think the potential is there. [Wickford Junction] was very well built, under cost, ahead of schedule, and it was built not for the short run but also the long run.”

Currently the MBTA only runs trains to T.F. Green and Wickford Junction on weekdays, with no service there on weekends. The agency has 10 arrivals and 10 departures scheduled at the two stations from 4:50 a.m. to 10:10 p.m. on weekdays. The state is also examining the feasibility of a rail shuttle service between Providence and Wickford Junction, according to RIDOT.

“We have to make sure we use this asset properly,” Reed said.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRI

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi