- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Hoping to capitalize on Boston’s economic aura, Rhode Island officials are working to develop a smartphone-based ticketing system for rail commuters traveling between Providence and Massachusetts.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has set aside $1.5 million in her annual budget proposal to create what’s called the “Rhody Pass.”

The smartphone app would allow riders using Amtrak or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter line to find a train and buy a ticket. It might also offer fare discounts.

Easing commutes between the two state capitals is part of Raimondo’s broader push to strengthen economic links with greater Boston and tap into its booming tech economy and highly skilled workforce.

Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said his office has begun conversations about the app with Amtrak and the MBTA. An Amtrak spokesman said Monday that the rail service is considering the idea.

“Boston and Providence have the potential to be more closely paired cities,” Pryor said.

Tightening that connection could encourage employers headquartered in one city to set up a branch office in the other, Pryor said.

The idea for a ticketing app catering to Providence-bound business travelers and commuters came from a state-commissioned economic strategy report by the Brookings Institution, based in Washington, D.C.

Because Rhode Island is so small, “there’s no state that has more of its economic activity going on outside it,” said Mark Muro, director of policy at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “There’s an opportunity to experiment with ways to try to tap that economic activity.”

The study also recommended more expensive initiatives to improve rail service and frequency, but Muro said the app is one way of building the demand that makes those long-term investments possible.

“There’s a lot of evidence that convenience, behavioral effects make a difference,” he said. “And the smartphone and Uber have changed the expectations for convenience.”

MBTA runs 16 round trips on weekdays between downtown Providence and Boston’s South Station. Some commuters also use Amtrak’s Northeast Regional line or its higher-speed Acela Express to travel between the two cities.

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