RIPTA extends free fare pilot program another month
Left to right, Patrick Crowley, Normand Benoit, and Chairman Peter Alviti listen during the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority Board of Directors meeting Wednesday afternoon. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Low-income passengers can keep riding the bus for free in Rhode Island under a temporary program that was set to expire Saturday, but will now continue for one more month.
After a heated half-hour discussion at its monthly meeting Wednesday, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s (RIPTA) board of directors unanimously voted to extend the No Fare Pilot Program through Oct. 31. The pilot program, which launched last November, offers free bus passes to riders ages 5 to 65 living at or below 200% of the poverty line. The pass itself gives low-income riders unlimited travel, which typically costs $70 per month.
The board’s decision marks the second extension for the No Fare Pilot Program. The program was originally supposed to be for six months. But in April, the board voted to extend it through Sept. 30 to allow RIPTA to collect additional data on ridership.
Sarah Ingle, RIPTA’s long range planning manager, told board members Wednesday that staff was still working on collecting ridership data. Ingle also requested extending the fare-free program to allow the agency to notify riders of the coming change.
RIPTA Board Chair and Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti was not pleased with that fact.
“Any kind of a pilot is for the purpose of collecting data, analyzing it, [and to] make a determination,” he said.
The extension of the No Fare Pilot Program comes as RIPTA’s free R-Line — which connects Cranston, Pawtucket, and Providence — is set to end Saturday. Another free pilot program in Central Falls – Ride Free Central Falls — continues through December.
Since the start of the No Fare Pilot Program, RIPTA has issued 775 cards to people by the time enrollment ended in March at a cost of $40,000 a month, Board Member Patrick Crowley noted.
Christopher Bluff, a rider who has Type 1 diabetes, told the board that riding fare-free allowed him to be able to attend physical therapy sessions after his pancreas burst last year.
“It helps me a lot, and it helps a lot of people,” he said.
Ingle said there is no available funding source right now to continue the No Fare Pilot Program after Oct. 31. Federal rules require that pilot programs close out after six months or be reconstituted with something new, she said.
So Ingle proposed that RIPTA impose a 30-day grace period to avoid penalties from the Federal Transit Administration. Though board members acknowledged her concerns, they said it was better to extend the program and deal with any penalties should they arise.
“It is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” board member Normand Benoit said.
Though he voted in favor of the proposal, Alviti said he hopes fellow board members can get a thorough analysis by the time of its scheduled Oct. 25 meeting.
“See you next month,” Alviti said with a smile.
This story was update to correct a sentence saying unlimited ride passes are $70 a year. They are $70 per month.
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