It took about a month to start seeing the consequences of raising bus fare on Rhode Island’s most vulnerable commuters. According to a Valley Breeze report, “those people are frequently going hungry.”
“New bus fees for disabled and elderly people are causing a dramatic decrease in the number of area residents eating meals at the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, says its director, and those people are frequently going hungry,” reported Ethan Shorey for the Valley Breeze last week.
Meals served at the kitchen are down 28 percent since the fare increase went into effect on February 1, and director Adrienne Marchetti sees a direct correlation. “People are going hungry, not because of a lack of food but because they can’t afford to come here,” Marchetti told the Valley Breeze. “They can’t afford to come here, and that’s a disgrace.”
Free RIPTA bus fare for 13,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities ended February 1. Now, most pay 50 cents and 25 cent transfers for each one way trip like everyone else. Approximately half of the 4,000 seniors who used the program on average for 31 trips per month were given 10-day bus passes.
The program was 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. “If it’s going to cost me any more money on quite a bit less than a $1,000 a month budget that is going to be a real hardship,” said an elderly woman, before a December RIPTA meeting at which activists implored the board to preserve the program.
“I come out of my check each month with $25,” said Christina Tate at a subsequent event organized by the RIPTA Riders Alliance. “It’s not possible for me to have the money to pay.”
Despite the impassioned, two year-long advocacy campaign to preserve its funding, Governor Gina Raimondo has not included the popular program in her last two budget proposals. Progressive legislators in the House of Representatives were split on its importance.
“It is with a heavy heart that I urge folks not to support this amendment because it’s not the best thing to do with the limited funds that we have,” said Rep. Teresa Tanzi, of South Kingstown/Narragansett, during the budget debate last year of a proposal to add $900,000 to fund the program. “Believe me I would love to make a $900,000 investment in RIPTA this is not the best way to do it.”
Providence Rep. John Lombardi made an impassioned plea to reinstate funding.
“Some of my constituents earn about between $700 and $800 a month and believe it or not 50 cents can make the difference,” he said, suggesting the money could come from the General Assembly’s own budget. “I’ll tell you what, many of my constituents are alone. They just received their citizenship from other countries. They’re here. They’re from the islands, they’re Russians, they’re Albanians, they’re people from Africa. That’s who my constituency looks like and I’m sure many of you are starting to see that in your neighborhoods. I think we have a duty to help these people. I think we have to assist these people because they are most in need.”
Ultimately, the General Assembly extended the program for half the year, until January and the RIPTA board extended it an addition month until February 1 in December.
The program accounts for between 1/3 and 1/4 of all of RIPTA’s trips, according to Barbara Polichetti, a spokeswoman for RIPTA. If all the riders in the program continue to take the bus, which has not been happening according to the Valley Breeze story, 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.
The program became more expensive to the state after its management was outsourced to a private company.
“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.”
Said Tanzi, during the House budget debate, “The problem is the state was forced to contract with a third party vendor. 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.”