Beginning in February, low-income seniors and disabled Rhode Islanders will pay 50 cents to ride Rhode Island Public Transit buses.
It’s the first time in nearly 40 years they have had to pay anything at all, since RIPTA introduced its free bus pass program. Now, riders who benefited from the program want it back, but the transit authority says it’s not sustainable.
Blossom Segaloff likes to ride the bus. She can walk to the grocery store, but it’s better to take the bus if she buys something heavy, like a carton of juice.
“And if it starts to suddenly rain and I don’t have my rain boots on, normally I would take the bus back.”
Segaloff says the bus also helps her get out of her small but neat apartment in Providence.
“And it’s partly my social life, I’m a bit of a recluse. But I like to be around people, I like to go to the supermarket and be around people and shop.”
Until February, Segaloff can ride the bus for free. In her mid-80s, she qualifies as a low income senior for Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, or RIPTA’s, no fare bus pass.
“Well, my budget is less than a thousand a month. And I am including food stamps.”
It’s a delicate balance to buy food and pay rent on just $1,000 a month.
“And the minute anything comes up that’s an extraordinary expense, it just smashes my budget.”
So when she learned RIPTA would begin charging her 50 cents a ride, Segaloff worried. At just a fourth of the regular $2 fare, 50 cents doesn’t sound like much. But it adds up for someone like Segaloff.
So why end the free bus pass program? Rhode Island Public Transit Authority spokeswoman Barbara Polichetti says it grew too big to support.
“At rush hour, one in four or one in three of our riders, depending on the time of day, are not paying a fare. And that translates in trips to anywhere from 5.2 million trips to 5.7 million trips.
That’s roughly a third of all trips a year on RIPTA buses.
So that’s five plus million trips per year on our buses, no fare, and that for us is, unfortunately, not a sustainable model.”
Polichetti says gas taxes and bus fares help fund the transit authority. Payments from the health and human services department used to help too, offsetting the loss in fares from people who rode for free. That’s because Medicaid, the state’s health insurance program for the poor, use to pay RIPTA to take its clients to non-emergency medical appointments. But in 2014, Medicaid contracted with an outside agency to provide transportation to doctors’ appointments. That struck nearly $6 million from RIPTA’s budget. At the same time, says Polichetti, more people started using the free bus pass program.
“So we not only had a program that was not sustainable but it was growing now, at sort of an alarming rate.”
She says RIPTA had to put the breaks on the program. Even though she says they’d like to continue it.
“There is always a social service component to public transit. We’re committed to that. So this has been a difficult issue. To make the program sustainable for those in it and for all, because we provide transportation not only for this important and somewhat financially vulnerable and fragile population, we are charged with providing transportation for everyone.”
But she says the math simply doesn’t work when up to a third of riders don’t pay a fare and there’s no more money from Medicaid. The state originally mandated the free bus pass program in the 70s but didn’t specify a way to pay for it, so RIPTA decided it had to begin charging, even a little bit, to make ends meet.
That decision set off protests. Ray Gagne is one of the lead organizers of those protests. He’s with the Rhode Island Organizing Project. He says slashing the free bus pass program could end up costing the state more money in the long run in health care costs.
“If an elderly person is isolated and can’t afford to take the bus, they will get depressed. Depression is a precursor to dementia for the elderly. They’ll end up in nursing homes. And nursing homes is one of the biggest drivers of our Medicaid budget.”
Nursing homes do account for quite a bit of Medicaid spending, although the link between isolation and ending up in a nursing home isn’t a direct line. Gagne is highlighting one of the major pieces of infrastructure state officials have said they need to build up to help seniors and the disabled maintain independence in the community. But Gagne says he understands RIPTA’s in a tough position.
“I mean we support RIPTA. We want them to get the funds that they need to run the program. But the solution is not to ask people who have money, who are desperately poor, to pay. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Gagne says other public transit authorities around the country have managed to figure out how to keep their free bus pass programs. In Pennsylvania, lottery tickets help fund the program. In San Francisco, a private company partnered with the transit system to support the program. But no one’s settled on a mechanism in Rhode Island.
“I think the solution is to grow their ridership to start going to places where people work.”
Bus rider Blossom Segaloff says she feels the state should go even further.
“My feeling about that? My real feeling about that is that public transportation should be free for everybody! Because I don’t see those gazillionaires riding those buses. I see people shelling out two bucks a ride that really don’t look as if they can afford it.”
Unless RIPTA or state authorities intervene, the free bus pass program ends for low income seniors and the disabled at the end of January. The General Assembly did temporarily extend the program six months last year, but it’s unclear if lawmakers plan to take the issue up in the new year.
Note: The Executive Office of Health and Human Services sent this statement in response to our request for comment: "...the Governor’s Office, EOHHS, and other state agencies will keep working to find a solution that balances the needs of these riders with RIPTA's fiscal constraints. We are absolutely committed to providing and strengthening services and supports for the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders."