WESTERLY — Not enough options and a need for additional marketing arose as significant points of discussion Friday as an audience of mostly riders, social service providers, and representatives of nonprofit groups discussed public transportation options with officials with the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority.
The meeting at the Westerly Library was organized by the Ocean Community Collaborative, which invited the RIPTA officials to discuss public transportation in Westerly and surrounding areas of Rhode Island. About 25 people attended.
Westerly is served, primarily, by three RIPTA bus and van services. The 204 Flex Service is available Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. It makes regular stops at the Westerly Train Station and Walmart and also goes to the Stedman Center in Kingstown and Salt Pond Plaza in Narragansett.
Riders can request the Flex Service to bring them to the Westerly State Airport, Westerly Hospital, local grocery stores and anywhere else within the “flex zone” that runs from the White Rock area through the downtown and along Route 1 to Dunn’s Corners. Boarding is at the specified stops or custom stops that riders arrange by calling RIPTA.
The 301 Westerly-Hope Valley Rural Ride is available on Fridays only and runs through specific stops in Westerly to stops in Ashaway, Hopkinton and Hope Valley, including to Wood River Health Services. Custom stops and pickups are also available by reservation.
On weekdays, RIPTA also offers the 95x, an express bus from the railroad station to Providence with stops in Hopkinton, Richmond and West Greenwich. There are three inbound and three outbound trips.
For residents who do not have access to a car, RIPTA service can be critical. Debra Howson, who lives in Bradford, said she can only use the flex service if she first finds someone to bring her to the Walmart stop in Dunn’s Corners. Howson gave up driving about three years ago when she couldn’t fford to have her vehicle repaired.
“It’s really a hardship...there’s no grocery stores up there in Bradford so access to fruits and vegetables is hard...we’re really just closed off up there in Bradford,” Howson said.
David Henley, development coordinator for Wood River Health Center, asked RIPTA representatives to consider expanding the Rural Ride service to more than one day per week. The center reserves medical appointment spaces on Friday in anticipation of riders needing the times, but Henley said an additional day would help the center’s patients.
One resident said she was surprised to learn of the express route to Providence.
“People are complaining that there’s no public way for them to get out of their car and get to Providence, and there is, but people don’t know about it,” said Sharon Ahern, a resident who formerly served as municipal chief of staff. She is a candidate for the Town Council.
Gregory Nordin, RIPTA’s director of planning, said the express route, which costs about $500,000 per year to operate, might be difficult to expand in its current configuration.
Nordin and Barbara Polichetti, RIPTA director of public affairs, encouraged those in attendance to call on state officials to consider new methods for funding the authority’s services. They said that its current heavy reliance on the sate gasoline tax is limiting.
The local flex service, which has about 2,000 riders per month, is the second most used flex service of seven in the state, Nordin said.
Polichetti said that the authority is studying the Rural Ride route for possible expansion of similar routes in other rural parts of the state.
Nordin said he was struck by the number of people who attended the meeting and offered to return to meet with municipal officials, an idea floated by Town Councilor Karen Cioffi. Many of RIPTA’s initiatives are developed as partnerships with municipalities, Nordin said.