The Coalition to Preserve No-Fare Passes crowded into the Rhode Island State House this morning to present Governor Gina Raimondo with thousands of signed post cards urging her to “provide funding for the next 18 months to preserve the RIPTA No-Fare Bus Pass Program.”
Since the General Assembly took away funding for the program, activists have been fighting to get the funding needed to prevent elderly and disabled people from having to spend 50 cents for a one-way bus trip. As Christina Tate explains so eloquently in the video below, many people on fixed incomes or living in poverty cannot afford the fare.
The plan at the State House was for RIPTA Riders advocate Marjorie Waters to go to Governor Raimondo’s office and deliver both the postcards and a message that the no-fare bus pass program should be preserved. But when the group of over 75 people knocked on the door of the governor’s office, no one answered for several minutes. Finally, when someone did answer the door, the person directed the crowd, after some questioning, to “wait in front of the the State Room.”
Instead, the crowd waited inside the State Room.
For over fifteen minutes.
Eventually Gabe Amo, the governor’s director of public engagement came out to engage with the public. Amor was professional and courteous, but he was not empowered to say anything of substance to the crowd. Amor said that the governor is doing what she can, that her staff is working on alternatives to the no-fare bus pass system, and that public pressure needs to be put on the General Assembly.
I asked Wayne Kezirian, who chairs the board of RIPTA, what kind of alternatives to the no-fare bus pass system are being worked on. Kezerian started by explaining that he was not in favor of free bus fare, and felt that “everyone should pay something to ride the bus to prevent overuse of the system” and that “discussions are going on with the governor’s staff as to whether or not the concept of no fare at all is appropriate for any transit authority.”
According to an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) survey, 20 transit authorities provide free rides to low income seniors and 13 provide free rides to the disabled.
Kezerien said there are questions as to where the funding for the program should come from, and whether the funding for the program should be run through an existing state agency. Finally, Kezerien wants to determine how people should pay, whether through purchased tokens, tickets or passes.
Kezerien might understand on some level what it’s like to be unable to absorb even a small increase in monthly expenses due to poverty, but he (and Governor Raimondo and Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M Teresa Paiva-Weed) does not understand the reality of poverty as it is lived. Watch the Christina Tate video above again or watch this video from Tim Flynn from the Ocean State Center for Independent Living, who explains that monthly income levels are “razor thin” for many disabled persons and that the no-fare bus pass system is key.
Finally, I’d like to put the no-fare bus pass system into some sort of context. RIPTA is 50 years old. Forty years ago, the no-fare bus pass system was implemented. It’s been around for 80 percent of RIPTA’s life.
At a certain point, the no-fare bus pass evolved from mere program to cherished value as uniquely Rhode Island as our historic separation of church and state and our long standing policy of saying no to the death penalty. The no-fare bus pass is part of the progressive, future-oriented drive of Rhode Island history, as imperfect as that history is. The no-fare bus pass is encoded into our state’s DNA, it’s part of what makes us special. Doing away with it imperils the very essence of what it means to be Rhode Island.