- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - State officials are considering whether to end a nearly 20-year-old program that makes public buses free on days when the air quality is expected to be unhealthy because of concerns it doesn’t get people out of their cars and onto public transit on those days.

“We have no data to support that this was happening,” Rose Amoros, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said in an email Wednesday. 

The program costs an estimated $300,000 annually, said Amy Pettine, director of planning and marketing for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Federal money pays for 80 percent of it, and the state is required to provide a 20 percent match.

The Department of Transportation previously has provided the state match, but Amoros said her department decided not to continue paying for it after 2013 “given that this service is not achieving the outcome for which it was designed.”

The program was put in place in 1995 and provides free bus and trolley service statewide whenever state officials declare an Air Quality Alert Day. Those are days when ground-level ozone or other pollutants are expected to make the air unhealthy. They can be particularly hazardous for elderly residents or those with respiratory illnesses.

Pettine said the agency has been working with the Department of Environmental Management since last summer about possible changes to the program and is discussing it with officials at the Transportation and Health departments. The free ride program could be funded by another state department, Pettine said, but part of what officials are looking at now is whether there are changes that could be made that better meet the goals of informing the public about bad air quality and reducing air pollution.

“We do know that there is a bump in ridership on Air Quality Alert Days,” Pettine said. “The majority of that demand, just anecdotally, is coming from folks just going to the beach.”

One issue for the Transit Authority is that the routes to the beach also serve park-and-ride lots, she said. Because there is so much demand for the routes on those days, the authority sometimes has to add service or even personnel on those lines to deal with crowd management. The federal program, however, will reimburse the Transit Authority only for the free rides, not for adding service, Pettine said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Management said the agency plans to continue to issue Air Quality Alerts on days it predicts will have unhealthy air and will continue to urge drivers to use public transit on those days, even if the free rides end.

The authority board holds its monthly meeting on Monday, and Pettine said board members could give an update as soon as that meeting on any changes they recommend.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide