By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Advocates for low-income bus riders are trying to put a stop to a 50-cent bus fare before it takes effect July 1. Some 13,000 seniors and people with disabilities are expected to be assessed the fee, ending a free-pass program.
“Some of our clients literally have no income and they would not be able to afford even a reduced fare,” said LeeAnn Byrne, policy director for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
Fifty cents may not seem like a lot of money, said Emily Jones, of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, but the fare “creates a substantive barrier to transportation for many Rhode Islanders who are already impoverished and at risk for social isolation.”
Jones and others noted that without the senior disabled no-fare pass program these bus riders will be forced to skip trips to the grocery store, community centers, job interviews and recovery meetings. This loss of social interaction also leads to isolation and an increase in health problems and even homelessness, they testified.
“The best thing to extend their life and their health is to get them out of the house and, if their are not going to take the bus because of the price, it’s going to cost us more in the end,” Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, said during a May 18 Senate Finance Committee meeting.
The new 50-cent fare is set to begin July 1, as part of the struggle by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) to manage its ever-anemic budget and curtail riders from using certain passes for transportation to places other than visits to doctors and hospitals.
RIPTA says the new fare is a matter of bringing its discount-pass system in-line with most of the rest of the country. As of 2015, only the cities of San Francisco and Chicago and Pennsylvania offered free-pass programs like Rhode Island’s.
“Rhode Island has long been outside the industry norm,” RIPTA CFO Karen DiLauro said during a May 17 House hearing for a bill to stop the new fare.
She noted that the federal standard suggests a 50 percent discount for bus fares and that at 50 cents the new fare is cheaper at only a quarter of the regular $2 fare. The free-pass program accounts for 5 million bus trips annually — more than a quarter of all trips — at a cost of $21 million, DiLauro testified. The 50-cent fare will cut costs and bring in $4 million in federal rebates, she said.
DiLauro said stopping the new fare from taking effect would be “financially and operationally detrimental to the authority.”
To get the new bus pass, riders with disabilities and seniors must also pay a $10 registration fee, have a valid photo identification and an income of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $23,760. Other criteria will determine if they qualify for an all-day or partial-day pass.
DiLauro suggested that state agencies such as the Department of Health and the Department of Elderly Affairs increase options for their transportation services for low-income riders.
Randall Rose of the RIPTA Riders Alliance testified that the new fare will reduce low-income ridership by 37 percent and cost about $1,000 a year if these riders take multiple daily trips. The new fare, he said, “is a terrible idea and it doesn’t cost very much money to take care of this.”
Rose and other supporters of the bills noted that RIPTA was making the best of a bad situation by trying to eliminate free passes. New services such as Logisticare, a third-party scheduler of rides for RIPTA, increased costs and made getting passes harder for some riders. But a fee on low-income seniors and riders with disabilities is the wrong group to ask to fix the budget, they said.
“If this fare thing is going to go through, where we have to pay 50 cents every ride, I’m going to be in the gutter. It’s really difficult,” said Melissa Fondakowski, who relies on the free pass to attend medical appointment for her psychological disabilities.
Both bills were held for further study.