Skip Navigation

Rhode Island on Rails

Image via The Providence Journal

On January 23, 2023, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) opened its newest station on the Providence/Stoughton commuter rail line in Pawtucket/Central Falls. Its grand opening, attended by Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee and Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, highlighted the economic and social benefits of the new station. The advantages of a new station are especially felt in a state like Rhode Island, which is both the smallest and second-most densely populated state in the Union. Owing to this, it is remarkably suited for commuter and intercity rail service. Unfortunately, the opportunity for rail service has not been fully utilized. Currently, many towns in Rhode Island, such as Westerly, have limited rail service, and even more towns—particularly Newport, Portsmouth, and Narragansett—have none whatsoever. Despite having the most Northeast Corridor stations per capita of any state serviced by Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, Rhode Island lacks rail transportation within the state. Nearby states, particularly Massachusetts, do not face similar challenges.

The most obvious choice would be for Amtrak to start interstate rail service within Rhode Island. Amtrak, however, faces a funding fight at the federal level that precludes many of their plans, concrete or hypothetical. But Rhode Island has another option: The MBTA, which currently services 176 communities within Massachusetts and Rhode Island and does not face the federal funding fight that Amtrak does. Rhode Island’s gaps in rail service, specifically in South County and Aquidneck Island, can and should be filled by the MBTA.

Expanded rail service would benefit Rhode Island in many capacities. New avenues for public transportation would support Rhode Island in meeting its 2050 net-zero goal. Fewer drivers would also mean less strain on Rhode Island’s roads and highways, which are already rated the worst in the nation, saving the state government money on repairs. Individually, public rail services would save commuters money on gas and car maintenance, increasing their spending power and injecting money into the local economy. Finally, extended transportation options could also help bring people into these towns as tourists or employees, boosting the local and state economies.

Unfortunately, Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) have hitherto failed in bringing rail to underserved communities. In December 2020, the Rhode Island State Planning Council approved RIPTA’s Transit Forward RI 2040 plan. The plan includes a light rail line from the Community College of Rhode Island to Pawtucket, bus rapid transit from TF Green Airport to Downtown Providence, and expanded bus service statewide. Noticeably lacking and without any concrete plans is commuter and interstate rail constructed by Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation (RIDOT) or RIPTA.

Thankfully, Rhode Islanders have another option: the MBTA. Through the Pilgrim Partnership—a 1988 agreement between RIDOT and the MBTA—the MBTA provides commuter rail service to Rhode Island in return for capital improvements such as the Pawtucket Layover and track upgrades. Additionally, Rhode Island pays for the MBTA to use Amtrak-owned tracks in the state. The original agreement provided for service between Boston and Providence, but was built upon in 2010 to cover service south of Providence to TF Green and Wickford Junction. To provide greater service within the state, the agreement can be extended again to cover the underserved areas within Rhode Island.

RIDOT has considered extending MBTA service south of Wickford Junction since the early 2000s. A July 2001 RIDOT report explored the possibility of extending MBTA service down the Northeast Corridor to Westerly, a relatively easy proposal in which Rhode Island would cover the costs of expanded routes. Alternatively, a new route could be tracked off of the Northeast Corridor south of Wickford Junction to Narragansett. However, this option would sport a price tag of nearly $83 million for just 13 miles of track and one station; additionally, the probability of such a project to run over budget and overtime is high, as such issues plague rail projects across the United States. Ultimately, as with all rail options, the decision power lies with RIDOT and the MBTA.

Westerly and Narragansett are not the only avenues available for the MBTA to expand its offerings in Rhode Island. On the other side of Narragansett Bay, the MBTA is building its South Coast Rail project, which will restore the commuter rail to Fall River and New Bedford. The project has cited the former Old Colony Railroad—a route that extended all the way from Boston to Newport—as inspiration. To better serve Rhode Islanders living on Aquidneck Island (and, not to mention, expand markets for the MBTA), RIDOT and MBTA should extend their agreement to cover Aquidneck Island and extend the South Coast Rail project to Newport. Extending the South Coast Rail project to Newport would give Newport commuters another option, easing congestion on I-195 while also opening Boston as a job market for residents of Newport and Portsmouth. Additionally, rail would boost the potential of bringing in tourists from Boston and other Massachusetts towns on the line.

The biggest challenges that would face the extension of the South Coast Rail project are primarily logistical. First and foremost, the rail bridge connecting Aquidneck Island and the mainland was closed in 1988 and removed in 2007; a new bridge would need to be built. Second, the project requires the construction of new railroad tracks—roughly 16.3 miles, alongside upgrades of existing ones. Finally, the current tracks run through a US Naval base, which has security measures that would slow down trains. Despite these issues, a 1994 study from RIDOT found that a rail corridor from Newport to Fall River would have the lowest capital costs of the nine potential corridors they identified; unfortunately, the rail corridor has yet to be built. The report also highlighted that, at the time, that same corridor would have had the highest cost per rider of the corridors.

Thankfully, things have changed since 1994. Electrified rails, for example, could help lower operating costs by up to 50 percent, and federal funds designated for rail by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could help fund both South Coast Rail and the aforementioned extension to Westerly. As it concerns Newport, a 2011–2015 study by the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training found that around 950 workers in Newport commuted to other cities that would be serviced by the line. On average, the MBTA station at Wickford Junction only saw 250 daily round trips pre-pandemic. Using that as a benchmark, if just over 25 percent of Newport’s commuters used a future rail option, its existence could be justified.

Organizational and operational problems within the MBTA could also undermine any future extensions into Rhode Island. Most metropolitan areas in the United States have separate funding pools and agencies for their subways and commuter rails. This puts commuter rails (including those in Rhode Island) in competition with Boston’s subway for capital funding. Additionally, the MBTA, while part of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, functions somewhat independently, which can lead to scuffles between the two. Aside from organizational hurdles, the MBTA’s safety record was nationally lampooned last year after the Orange Line caught fire and subsequently shut down, and after the release of a scathing report from the Federal Transit Administration blasting the MBTA’s lack of oversight and enforcement. The MBTA’s safety and organization record could lead lawmakers in Providence to back away from commuter rail expansion.

Thankfully, multiple bills in the Massachusetts Legislature’s current session could ameliorate the issues within the MBTA. The SD 2217 bill, introduced by Massachusetts State Senator Brendan Crighton in January 2023, would mandate the electrification (and increased frequency) of the MBTA’s commuter rail services, including the Providence/Stoughton Line, which could encourage the MBTA to extend their service to Westerly on the already-electrified Northeast Corridor. On the organizational end, Massachusetts State Representative William Straus’ bill, HD 3315, introduced in January, would transfer the MBTA’s commuter rail service to be directly under the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, an agency with far fewer issues than the MBTA.

The past decade and the MBTA’s current projects provide a wonderful opportunity for Rhode Island to expand its rail service. Doing so would provide more options for Rhode Island commuters and help boost community and state economies. While Amtrak is limited by federal funds and the Northeast Corridor, the MBTA not only is not, but has a unique relationship through the Pilgrim Partnership. To better honor and expand this partnership, the MBTA should help fill in Rhode Island’s gaps in rail transportation.

[The writer would like to thank BPR staff writer Maddock Thomas for his assistance with the research for this article.]