With only 12 days left before the state was set to stop giving elderly, disabled, and low income Rhode Islanders free bus passes, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority Board of Directors voted to extend that social service for one more month. But for those who have been battling since summer to reinstate the program permanently saw the 30 day reprieve as something other than a Christmas miracle.
“It’s like a stay of execution,” said Marjorie Waters, an activist with the Rhode Island Organizing Project. “They are just kicking the problem down the road. It’s still going to be the dead of winter.”
The free bus fare program serves about 13,000 Rhode Islanders who are either elderly, disabled or low income. Governor Gina Raimondo proposed cutting the program from the state budget earlier this year and the legislature gave it six extra months. That extension was slated to sunset on January 1. But that was before the board voted unanimously on Monday to extend it one more month.
“I am asking that this fare be deferred until February first,” said RIPTA Board chairman Wayne Kezirian. “I am not recommending, unless there are changes to funding to RIPTA, that this fare be eliminated.”
He said the extension is partly a yuletide overture to protect indigent people from the elements, but also that RIPTA may not be quite ready to implement the change.
“We are also cognizant that it’s December, that it’s the holiday season and we anticipate that rolling out this $.50 fare will cause some logistical issues for folks,” Kezirian said, “including for RIPTA because we would need to implement some fare product changes and technology changes to properly work with the service providers who service the population that would be affected by this fare increase.”
The program is critical to indigent Rhode Islanders in a way that is hard to understand for those who have never been unable to afford a bus pass.
The program accounts for between 1/3 and 1/4 of all of RIPTA’s trips, said Barbara Polichetti, a spokeswoman for RIPTA. If all the riders in the program continue to take the bus, the state could see an additional $3 million in revenue from the $.50 cent fare increase. But only about $1.4 million of that would come from bus tickets.
“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.”
During an impassioned debate in the House of Representatives over the program in June, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, Narragansett/South Kingstown, said outsourcing accounted for the change in Medicaid reimbursement.
“The problem is the state was forced to contract with a third party vendor,” she said at the time. “That third party vendor is called Logisticare and since they have taken over the number of people who have qualified for these free passes has grown. And while that has happened they have changed it so they are no longer billing those passes the way that RIPTA used to.”