The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority voted Monday to end a program offering free bus service to low-income, elderly and disabled passengers. Starting in July, those passengers will pay up to 50 cents, or a quarter of the current standard bus fare of $2.
The decision was a compromise of sorts. Riders' advocacy groups said any increase would be too steep for the thousands of struggling Rhode Islanders who rely on free bus service. But RIPTA officials pushed back, saying the number of people riding for free was unsustainable on the current operating budget.
Originally RIPTA had proposed a fare of $1, but public outcry was swift and loud. During months of hearings, hundreds of people voiced opposition to the change.
At Monday’s meeting, board members heard testimony from more than a dozen people, who said paying even a discounted bus fare would negatively impact their lives.
They cited hardships such as physical disabilities, expensive medical treatments, the need to care for family members or the cost of running simple errands.
Broadly, the testimony indicated that a steep fare increase would strip many riders of their independence and diminish their quality of life.
Hours before Monday’s meeting, Governor Gina Raimondo issued a statement calling on the RIPTA board to approve an amended proposal, which would increase the fare to just 50 cents. The governor also endorsed delaying implementation until July 1st.
Riders' advocates said they were pleased with the July date, and they are hoping to raise enough money to re-instate the no-fare service for low-income, elderly and disabled residents.
However, RIPTA head Ray Studley said the compromise will tighten the authority’s already constrained finances. Even the original proposal was estimated to leave RIPTA with an $800 deficit. The compromise approved by the RIPTA board will create an estimated deficit between $1.5 and $2 million.
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