There are now three separate bills before the legislature that would reinstate free bus fare for elderly and disabled Rhode Islanders, a longstanding social program that was cut from the state budget last year.
Two of the bills come from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate. One House bill was introduced on January 19, early in the legislative session, and is sponsored by Reps Moira Walsh, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, Aaron Regunberg, Chris Blazejewski, all of Providence, and Charlene Lima, a member of the leadership team from Cranston. A similar Senate bill was introduced on February 1, and is sponsored by Senators Harold Metts, Anna Quezada, Paul Jabour, Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, all of Providence, and Betty Crowley, of Central Falls.
A third was introduced in the House on March 31 – shortly after The Valley Breeze, then RI Future, then the Providence Journal reported that some people who utilized the free transportation were no longer making it to community meals. Sponsored by Reps Ken Marshall, Gregg Amore, John Lombardi, William O’Brien, and Carlos Tobon, it appears to have the blessing of House leadership as Reps. Marshall and O’Brien are close allies of House Speaker Nick Mattiello.
For his part, Mattiello, who rarely tips his hand as to where he stands on legislation, seemed to have an open mind to the idea on Tuesday after the House session.
“There’s a lot of interest in reinstating bus passes for the most vulnerable,” he told RI Future. “Most people would like to see us get something done on this if we can.” Both bills, he said, would be heard by the House Finance Committee. Marshall is the vice chairman of that committee.
Metts said the Senate wanted the program in last year’s budget. “We just have to find out if the House has had a change of heart,” he said.
The Marshall bill would fund the free rides through the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), rather than through RIPTA as has been the case in the past. “It takes the financial responsibility, as well as managing who is able to receive these passes, and puts it in the proper department,” Marshall, who represents Bristol and Warren, said.
Tobon, of Pawtucket, said the federal government will fund the program if the state pays for it up front, and manages it as a public health function rather than a public transportation function.
“The reason is the federal government will reimburse us if we put up the money,” he said. “There are specific things we need to meet, but we can get there. We can address a lot of the needs without spending any more money.”
About 13,000 senior citizens and disabled Rhode Islanders utilized the program at a cost of about $1.4 million in 2015, according to RIPTA spokeswoman Barbara Polichetti. The free rides accounted for between a third and a three quarters of all RIPTA trips, she said. The free rides became more expensive in recent years when management was outsourced to Logisticare, which didn’t reimburse for Medicaid in the same way.
“More than 85 percent of the passengers in this program have Medicaid as their insurance,” Polichetti said. “One of the problems we face is that with a free program, people are not getting their Medicaid transit benefit and we are not getting the reimbursement.”
Marshall and Tobon said they are exploring ways to make the free rides only available when buses are under full capacity. Because of the numerous free riders, some see RIPTA buses as “rolling homeless shelters,” Marshall said. “Because of that, people wouldn’t take the bus.”