Transportation

RIPTA Board Approves 6-Month Extension for Free Fare Pilot Program

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About 40% of participants in RIPTA's free fare pilot program used the bus to get to work, according to the agency. (ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Transit Authority’s No Fare Pilot Program will continue for an additional six months, after the agency’s board recently voted to extend the program.

The program offers free bus passes to individuals from age 5 to 65 who are living at or below 200% of the poverty line and didn’t already qualify for the agency’s free fares program for older adults and people with disabilities.

The passes gave riders free unlimited travel for six months, which will now be extended to free travel until September. Usually, an unlimited bus pass costs $70 a month.

Since the program started in November, the agency issued cards to 775 people by the time enrollment ended in March, many of them riders who are unhoused.

About 40% of the participants in the pilot used their passes for work, according to a RIPTA survey. An additional 24% used the free fares to get to medical appointments and services. Other uses included grocery shopping, other shopping, leisure/social events, and education.

Only 3% surveyed said they did not use the passes at all. 

Although initial usage was slower than expected, as the agency signed more and more people up for passes with the help of local groups, the number of rides on the passes increased, Nathan Hannon, RIPTA customer service operation administrator, said at the April 12 board meeting.

Hannon noted that through the process of onboarding customers to the program, he saw other ways that the free and reduced pass programs could be improved to remove some of the punitive measures that keep people from signing up for, renewing, or replacing their passes.

RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian said the additional time would allow his staff to collect more data and gauge if and how the program could continue.

At the public hearing before the meeting began, a few people spoke to the impact the program has had.

Christopher Bluff, one of the program participants, described becoming homeless this year after being hospitalized and struggling to get treatment for his Type 1 diabetes. The free pass has helped him get to his appointments and pick up his medicine.

“It really is a giant gift,” he said, adding that without it he would have to choose between food and travel.

“There is no denying the positive effects that this program has had for so many,” said Kevin Simon, director of outreach and communications for Mathewson Street United Method Church, one of the organizations that helped RIPTA enroll participants. “Over the last four months we have heard countless stories of how it has impacted the day-to-day lives of so many in the community.”

When the program extension ends in September, the board will likely hear more data from the pilot and consider whether the program can be continued in the future.

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