RIPTA riders rally to bring back free fare

RIPTA riders rally against increased fares. (Photo: Steph Machado/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Dozens of people who ride on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses gathered outside the State House Wednesday afternoon to protest a recent change in fares.

Seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income riders previously rode the bus for free, but RIPTA increased the price to 50 cents on February 1. The price is still less than the standard $2 bus fare.

“I’m paying between $5 and $7 a day,” said Ruth Madson, who lives in Providence and uses the bus to get everywhere. “Doctor’s appointments, medical appointments, to the store to go shopping, to see my family.”

“People are having trouble getting to places like church services, the grocery store, court, probation,” said Brian Vanmourkerque, another RIPTA rider. Several people brought up the probation issue, saying it’s been difficult to get to required appointments – and not showing up could send them back to jail.

“Senior citizens and disabled people, we have to take care of those people,” said state Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, who attended the rally. He said RIPTA should be able to find the money those fares bring in somewhere else in the budget.

A spokesperson for RIPTA, Barbara Polichetti, said the new program is estimated to bring in upwards of $3.5 million annually, although she said that estimate is approximate since the program is new. She also said RIPTA expects to lose riders because of the fare change.

“RIPTA understands that this is financially vulnerable population and we are sensitive to the needs of these customers,” Polichetti said in an email. “However, for more than 40 years, RIPTA bore almost all the costs of providing free transportation for low-income seniors and persons with disabilities and that model is no longer sustainable for the transit authority.”

The $3.5 million revenue estimate includes an estimated $1.4 million directly from the fare box, and the rest from Medicaid-covered transportation for medical trips. Medicaid recipients are eligible for free transportation to a long list of non-emergency services, and RIPTA gets reimbursed for those fares. But when bus fares were free, Polichetti said there was no way to track who was using the service for medical trips, and therefore RIPTA was not paid through the Medicaid program.

“The challenge is to find ways to provide needed transportation benefits without doing so at the cost of a healthy public transit system capable of meeting the needs of all Rhode Islanders,” Polichetti said.

Still, some riders said they simply can not weather the change.

“I’m trying to fight to drop the 50 cents,” said Felicia Accioli, who identified herself as disabled. “I’m on a fixed income. I don’t have money to take the bus.”