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First Transit is the Answer Coalition meeting tackles reduced fare and ride free program expansion

May 10, 2023

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More than 100 riders, elected officials, advocates, and other stakeholders met virtually with the RTA on May 9 for the first quarterly Transit is the Answer Coalition meeting, receiving an update on strategic plan implementation and focusing on expanding the regional reduced fare and ride free program to people with low incomes. For 90 minutes, attendees learned from RTA staff on the agency’s current fare programs and possible ways to expand them and offered their recommendations for a path forward.

The first part of the meeting was an overview of Transit is the Answer, the RTA’s new regional transit strategic plan, highlighting the projects that fall under the plan’s actions for success:

  1. Take affirmative steps forward to secure increased funding for transit operations and make the system less reliant upon fare revenue.
  2. Deliver a set of new regional transit initiatives that will make the system better for riders.
  3. Collaboratively begin development of three regional action plans to program investments that support a thriving region.

Next, the RTA presented on fare programs, reminding attendees that a commitment from Transit is the Answer was to seek funding for an expanded regional free or reduced fare program available to people with low incomes. This commitment came from a robust engagement process during plan development involving more than 100 working group members, thousands of survey respondents, and interactions at community events in every county in the region.

RTA Principal, Intergovernmental Policy, Kyle Whitehead explained that this goal is closely linked to securing increased funding for transit operations. Without new public funding, the system is facing a $730 million operating shortfall starting in 2026 when federal relief funds run out.

Whitehead explained that these vital programs for vulnerable residents are drastically underfunded. Paratransit is federally mandated but hasn’t been appropriately funded since it was established in the ADA in 1990. This year the state appropriation for paratransit service is projected to cover less than 4% of the overall cost of the program. The situation is similar with the region’s free and reduced fare programs. The state appropriation covers less than 20% of the cost of free and reduced rides for seniors and people with disabilities. This means local agencies are left to cover the bulk of the cost of their general operating revenue. This is funding that could otherwise be used to support frequent and reliable fixed route service, so the lack of funding for these programs has trickle-down effects on service quality across the system.

If expansion of these programs were part of a larger funding package that included fully funding the existing programs, it could reduce the overall operating funding gap and help make our system more equitable. These are all critical programs that connect many of the most vulnerable people in our region to jobs, healthcare, and other opportunities. They give people with limited transportation options independence and the freedom to move. RTA and the Service Boards are fully committed to sustaining them now and into the future – but need more public funding.

The meeting ended with a passionate discussion among stakeholders about how an expansion of these programs might work. Options included:

  • Income-based: All people experiencing low incomes can access free or reduced rides. The income verification process could be linked to a broadly understood benefit program like SNAP.
  • Geography: One or multiple bus routes or train lines would be discounted or fare free to all riders based on a geographic concentration of residents with low incomes.
  • Demographic: For example, free rides for students or youth.
  • Universal or modal: Make all transit trips fare-free, or all bus trips fare-free.

Based on a poll, most attendees said an income-based program would be most equitable. But some arguments were made for a geography-based program as an opportunity to right the historic wrongs of disinvestment and to make accessing the free or reduced fares simpler. Some attendees referred to the success of the Fair Transit South Cook program, which offers up to a 50% fare reduction on Metra's Electric and Rock Island lines as well as increased service on Pace Route 352 Halsted, both sharing analyses and discussing how the program has been personally beneficial to them.

Some attendees argued an income-based program would require people to apply and prove their income to qualify, presenting a barrier to the most vulnerable. Social service workers on the call told stories of individuals they work with missing out on benefits they would qualify for because the application process is arduous.

Others argued that the most equitable option is a universal free or reduced fares system, which would benefit riders with low incomes without the barriers and would encourage riders of all incomes to get back on transit as the agencies continue to work toward regaining pre-pandemic ridership levels. Other conversations centered on urgency and the reality that, ultimately, state legislators will make the final decision on how to structure and fund a free or reduced fare program expansion, and the RTA’s role is to use data and stakeholder feedback to make recommendations and advocate.

The RTA will continue work on this action item and will continue engaging stakeholders along the way. Watch a recording of the full Coalition meeting online, and join the Transit is the Answer Coalition to be part of the process and stay informed on progress.

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Tagged in: Transit is the Answer | Coalition | Equity | Accessibility

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