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At a weekly breakfast, a taste of RIPTA’s free transport program

RIPTA to distribute 600 free bus passes as part of pilot program for low-income riders

<p>Kevin Simon, director of outreach and communications for Mathewson Street, praised RIPTA for quickly establishing the program, but also pointed out its shortcomings. &quot;There’s gonna be an incredible amount of folks who won’t be able to utilize this,” he said.</p>

Kevin Simon, director of outreach and communications for Mathewson Street, praised RIPTA for quickly establishing the program, but also pointed out its shortcomings. "There’s gonna be an incredible amount of folks who won’t be able to utilize this,” he said.

At 7 a.m. last Sunday, a small line formed outside a side chapel at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church in downtown Providence. Normally, lines at this hour would only be for food, as the church offers free breakfast each week for unhoused people. But this particular morning, those in line were also waiting for something else — a free bus pass.

Once inside the chapel, breakfast-goers filled out white registration forms. After completing the final steps with a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority representative, a program worker took makeshift identification photos on a phone.

“I just started a job. I need to go to East Providence,” said Michael Dinagen, who had just received one of the passes. “It’ll save me a little bit of money. I live in a shelter (and) I’m trying to get out of there.”

RIPTA launched a new pilot program Nov. 3 that will deliver 600 free bus passes for those who make less than 200% of the poverty threshold, according to a recent RIPTA press release. The passes will last for six months. 

“The best defense is to organize. … Because of your work, 600 bus passes are going out to the unhoused,” Mathewson Street Pastor Duane Clinker told those eating their Sunday breakfasts. Above him, a big white banner read: “We want free bus transportation for all unhoused people in R.I.”

Without the pilot program, in order to receive a no-fare bus pass under RIPTA’s current rules, applicants must either have a qualifying disability or be older than 65 in addition to making less than 200% of the poverty threshold. 

But a lack of documentation often makes it difficult for those who do qualify for such passes to receive them, said Kevin Simon, director of outreach and communications for Mathewson Street. RIPTA had visited Mathewson Street to distribute no-fare bus passes prior to the Nov. 3 program launch, but only managed to enroll 12 people who met the existing criteria, Uprise RI previously reported.

“The current RIPTA program for low-income bus ridership was incredibly restrictive, not just for unhoused people, but really for any poor person,” said Patrick Crowley, a member of the RIPTA board of directors who proposed the pilot program to the board. “The requirements were onerous, and that’s why the program, in my opinion, wasn’t used enough.”

Organizers said the bus passes would help unhoused and low-income riders go to work, doctor’s visits, shelters and even events like Mathewson Street’s free breakfasts. “These are pretty basic human things, so I think the impact is powerful,” Clinker said.

On Sunday, the demand for the new passes was evident. RIPTA allotted 50 free bus passes to Mathewson Street, and distributed the rest to a variety of other similar organizations across the state, Simon said.

A few minutes after 8 a.m., all 50 passes for Mathewson Street were distributed.

“It’s hard to not pay attention when you’re sitting next to someone on the bus. It’s hard to not hear their stories, to share their experiences,” Crowley said to the crowd. “Rhode Island is a better place to live when we all can see each other.”

Despite the recent victories, activists at Mathewson Street Church cautioned that there is lots to be done. Pamela Poniatowski, one of the chairs of Rhode Island’s Poor People’s Campaign and an organizer for the Rhode Island Housing Justice Organizing Committee, said that while the pilot is a great step forward, “we need it for more people.” 

Simon noted that the organizing committee originally asked RIPTA to allot passes specifically for unhoused people, rather than a broader low-income group.

“RIPTA made it happen in less than two weeks, so credit to their staff, but it’s not entirely what we wanted,” Simon said. “There’s gonna be … a lot of folks who are going to really benefit from this program, but there’s gonna be an incredible amount of folks who won’t be able to utilize this.”

“600 (passes) isn’t gonna get it done,” he added.

According to Crowley, RIPTA expanded eligibility for the passes in part because it was difficult to determine who qualified as “unhoused,” a concern the RIPTA board of directors heard during testimony. Rather than coming up with “a perfect definition,” Crowley said that RIPTA decided an income threshold would target those “in need of support” without having to apply such a definition.

“By directing the passes to the agencies that specifically work with the unhoused, the thought process was (that) most of these passes are going to get to people (who) by most other general common sense definitions would be considered homeless or unhoused,” Crowley said. He added that if additional passes were needed further down the line, he would work with the board to make sure people got them.

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Clinker also said that RIPTA missed “key agencies” in its distribution plan, such as House of Hope and Amos House. “It could’ve been more powerful,” he said.

Choosing which organizations to distribute to was determined by “existing relationships” that RIPTA had with agencies, Crowley said. He noted that making the pilot program a formal policy will offer RIPTA a chance to improve and change the program.

“That gives us the opportunity to say, ‘Okay, what could we have done a little bit better, and who else could be involved,’ so that going forward, we’ll have as many voices at the table as possible,” he said.

The no-fare pilot program is part of a series of recently enacted transit equity programs in Rhode Island. RIPTA also recently began a year-long free fare pilot program for the R-Line, the most popular bus line in the state that connects Providence and Pawtucket. Similarly, RIPTA also began a “Ride Free Central Falls” pilot program earlier this year, which allows passengers to “board the bus in Central Falls with a Wave smart card or mobile app” for free, according to a RIPTA press release.

Crowley said that he hopes the R-Line project will help “demonstrate that if the whole system is free, then it’ll be better used.”

“We are collectively starting to recognize and talk about transit as an aspect of equity,” said State Senator Meghan Kallman ’16, D-Pawtucket, Providence. 

Kallman sponsored legislation which allotted state funding that made the R-Line program possible. She originally proposed making the entire system free, but settled on creating a pilot program first due to funding issues.

“The state budget is a reflection of the things that we prioritize,” Kallman said. “Prioritizing transit is one of the things that we need to be doing more of in a very significant and dedicated way.”

The goal of the free R-Line program is to see “how it’s working and for who,” Kallman said, which includes tracking if ridership numbers increase. Kallman also explained that equitable transit provides benefits for both riders and the environment, noting that public transportation can help reduce carbon emissions. 

“We have to change our expectations (and) expect more,” said Kallman. “We’re a tiny little state, but we can have a bus system that is clean, efficient, timely, convenient (and) free.”


Jacob Smollen

Jacob Smollen is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics for the Metro section and a podcast editor for the Bruno Brief. He is a sophomore from Philadelphia studying International and Public Affairs.



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