Cost to ride public transit likely to increase
By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) recently unveiled several proposals to update fare rates at four public meetings around the state. While the base fare — $2 a ride to travel anywhere in the state — will likely remain unchanged, other fare types, such as multi-day and monthly passes, could rise in cost. Express-route fares could increase from the base fare to between $2.50 and $4 a ride.
Perhaps most significantly, seniors and people with disabilities will likely have to start paying to ride the bus. RIPTA, until recently, was required by law to provide free bus passes to those populations, which account for about a quarter of all bus trips annually.
The proposed changes are part of a transit fare study launched by RIPTA in April. The study is designed to review current and study alternative fare rates. It comes at a time when RIPTA is attempting to increase revenue to overcome an annual budget deficit, and prior to planned fare-box upgrades on buses.
New fare products that may be introduced include reloadable smart cards and 10-ride cards, the latter of which Amy Petine, RIPTA’s director of planning, described as being similar to a gift card. Fare products that may be eliminated include Riptiks and the 15-ride pass.
In some of its proposed options, RIPTA incentivizes passengers to buy bus tickets, regardless of type, prior to boarding, to improve boarding efficiency. For example, in one scenario, a seven-day pass would cost $23 if bought off-bus, but $30 if purchased while boarding.
Pettine acknowledged RIPTA’s responsibility to make all fares more available to riders, especially if off-bus purchases are incentivized. In the current system, some fare products can only be bought while boarding, while others can only be purchased off-bus. Additional sales locations, ticket vending machines, and an expanded ability to purchase fares online are being considered.
Barbara Polichetti, director of public affairs for RIPTA, said the recent round of public meetings was designed to gather public feedback. She said there is latitude to mix fare products and rates between the proposed options. RIPTA will receive comments on these options through Oct. 5 at email@example.com.
The attendees of the Providence-based public meeting were overwhelmingly against imposing fares on seniors and people with disabilities. In some instances, angry members of the public confronted RIPTA spokespeople who attempted, in vain, to explain the reasoning behind the decision.
Don Rhodes, president of the RIPTA Riders Alliance, an advocacy group of RIPTA passengers, told ecoRI News that he isn’t opposed to charging seniors and people with disabilities to ride the bus, but that the rates presented at the meeting — ranging between 75 cents and a dollar with differing transfer rates — are too high. He said a smaller charge of perhaps 50 cents during peak hours combined with free rides during off-peak hours would be preferable.
Rhodes said that if the fare is set too high seniors and people with disabilities will feel compelled to do all of their errands on days when they have doctors appointments, because many are eligible for free passes to non-emergency medical appointments through Medicaid.
“A full dollar is significant to seniors and disabled people,” he said.
Rhodes also believes charging seniors and people with disabilities will slow bus boarding times. Most seniors will pay for their passes in cash when boarding, he said, the exact behavior RIPTA is trying to avoid.
“It’s not going to be efficient for the drivers,” Rhodes said.
Many public-transit advocates read the tea leaves prior to the public meetings. In the waning hours of the 2015 legislative session, RIPTA was granted the ability to charge low-income seniors and people with disabilities up to half of the full-price fare to ride the bus.
Then, at RITPA’s July 20 board meeting, Pettine, along with other RIPTA officials, made it known that the agency’s budget already included new revenue gained by charging seniors and people with disabilities to ride the bus. Such a charge could generate between $1 million and $3.5 million in additional revenue annually, they said. RIPTA’s fiscal 2016 budget deficit is about $800,000.
Randall Rose, a member of the RIPTA Riders Alliance who advocates for low-income passengers, said he can support a fare increase in express-route fares and park-and-ride services, but not a dollar increase on seniors and people with disabilities.
“Seniors and the disabled cannot afford one dollar per ride,” he said. “They were originally given free bus passes because they cannot afford them otherwise.”
Rose also suggested that if fares are raised on express routes, than RIPTA should discount the fares for short Providence routes, which, he said, could have the added benefit of reducing traffic congestion. That idea wasn’t incorporated into any of the proposed options presented by RIPTA.
According to Rose, a dollar fare increase on seniors and people with disabilities will leave them “stuck at home, unable to make trips to shop or see family.”
Bill Flynn, executive director of the Senior Agenda Coalition, agrees with Rose. He said RIPTA’s planning director acknowledged to him via e-mail that the dollar fare increase on seniors and people with disabilities could result in 5,500 fewer people using the bus — a 40 percent decrease from the 13,000 seniors and people with disabilities who currently access the bus using a free pass.
Making the bus less accessible leaves many isolated from the community and forces others into nursing homes sooner than would otherwise be necessary, according to Flynn.
Studies show isolation is the single greatest cause of decreased longevity among seniors, Flynn said. Other studies have concluded that volunteering regularly in the community, something the proposed bus fares would make less achievable, has positive health effects on seniors, including increased brain function.
When seniors enter nursing homes early because they don’t have access to the services they need to remain in the community, such as public transit, significantly more Medicaid dollars are spent on them, according to Flynn. If those low-level-care seniors could remain in the community, the Medicaid dollars saved could be shifted to other important services.
Flynn said legislators were misled at the end of the 2015 session when they voted to allow RIPTA to impose fares on seniors and people with disabilities. Rhode Island isn’t an outlier in terms of offering free bus passes to these populations, as legislators were led to believe, he said.
Chicago and San Francisco, and the state of Pennsylvania, for example, offer free bus passes to seniors. Also, compared to other states, Rhode Island has the highest proportion of seniors age 85 and older, most of whom can no longer drive, according to Flynn.
He said legislators were also told that Medicaid would cover the cost of senior bus rides, a statement he called, “a quarter truth.” In reality, Medicaid only pays for non-emergency transportation to and from medical appointments. It doesn’t cover the cost of other bus rides, such shopping trips or to a volunteer site, he said.
Polichetti, RIPTA’s director of public affairs, said charging seniors and people with disabilities to ride the bus isn’t a decision the authority takes lightly. “There is a social service aspect that we take seriously. We have riders with real needs and low incomes, it’s a difficult decision,” she said.
Polichetti acknowledged that Medicaid wouldn’t completely compensate for the free pass program should it be discontinued. Medicaid doesn’t cover all bus rides and some Medicaid plans may not cover trips for non-emergency medical appointments, she said. Furthermore, she noted that in order to obtain a bus pass paid for by Medicaid, customers must contact LogistiCare — the state’s contracted company who oversees the program — seven days in advance. LogistiCare then hunts for the lowest-cost option and mails the customer their bus pass.
That said, Polichetti described the almost-entirely-unfunded free-pass program as “unsustainable.” She said if the state wants to continue offering free rides to seniors and people with disabilities, then it needs to provide more revenue to RIPTA via the state budget.
All of the transit advocates interviewed for this story agreed that state government isn’t doing its part to adequately fund RITPA. Rose said the state chooses RIPTA’s deficit when it sets the budget. If public transit was a higher priority, legislators could allocate more money to RITPA and close the budget gap, he said.
Beyond being a social service to seniors and people with disabilities, Polichetti said RIPTA needs to “meet the needs of the state’s colleges and universities and help spur the economy.”
Barry Schiller, a member of the RIPTA Riders Alliance and volunteer for the Sierra Club, agrees that the conversation around public transit can’t be only about seniors and people with disabilities.
“I am sympathetic, but I am also interested in transit as a tool to improve the environment, fight climate change and revive cities,” Schiller said. “To some extent, these priorities are in conflict.”
Schiller said that when people see public transit as only for low-income people, they support funding it as a social service, but are less likely to use it themselves. This attitude prevents the system from gaining a critical mass, which would help resolve the authority’s budget issues and have a meaningful impact on the environment. The share of people who use public transit in Rhode Island is significantly lower than states with comparable density, he said.
According to Schiller, everyone involved in generating revenue for RIPTA needs to contribute more — passengers, state legislators and the authority itself.
Schiller said a 50-cent fare increase on seniors and people with disabilities, along with a fare increase for express routes, would be enough to close most of RIPTA’s deficit. He conducted a survey of 21 comparable transit systems and found that the average fare for seniors and people with disabilities was just under 70 cents per ride. RIPTA’s $2 base fare was higher than the $1.60 average for systems included in his survey.
He said everyone should pay something, but what RIPTA has proposed for seniors and those with disabilities might be a little burdensome. Schiller also said he was “slightly disappointed” by the proposals offered by RIPTA at the recent public meeting. He said increasing the cost of the monthly pass is a mistake if RIPTA truly wants to reduce the number of people paying with cash. He said the agency should also emphasize and offer larger discounts for smart-card use.
He was impressed by RITPA’s inclusion of a weekend pass into some options, calling it “innovative.” He is also hopeful that if fares are increased on riders, it will give public-transit advocates more leverage at the Statehouse.
“We’ll be able to say, ‘the passengers have stepped up and paid more, now its your turn,’” he said.
Schiller, along with other transit advocates, believe RIPTA could save money by better managing its overtime budget. According to Schiller, RIPTA was $4 million to 5 million over budget on overtime last year, but $2 million under budget on straight time.
“Its an opportunity for management to tighten up what it’s been doing,” he said.
Polichetti said the current round of meetings are a starting point from which RIPTA is gathering public feedback. Once RIPTA staff reviews all public comments, it will prepare a final recommendation to present to the authority’s board of directors. If the board decides to pursue any fare changes, formal public hearings will be held.