- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The state agency that provides bus service across Rhode Island has decided to do away with a nearly 20-year policy of offering free bus rides on days when the air quality is expected to be unhealthy, a decision based on a lack of funding and concerns it wasn’t encouraging commuters to ditch their cars.

In fact, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority said the program may have been making Air Quality Alert days worse.

As the free rides became more well-known and popular, RIPTA began to see overcrowding on routes that travel to recreational areas, like the beach, on AQA days, said RIPTA spokeswoman Barbara Polichetti.

“The problem was that the crowding discouraged our regular commuters from taking the bus on those days. Commuters would relay to us that they would avoid the bus on an AQA day. Instead they would drive,” Polichetti said.

“We know that the free rides were popular, but we had to ask ourselves if they were really changing people’s travel habits,” Polichetti said.

The program was put in place in 1995 and provided 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.

In recent years, RIPTA estimated the program was costing about $300,000 annually. Eighty percent of that would come from federal funds, and the state was required to provide a 20 percent match.

The state Department of Transportation previously provided the match, but a DOT spokeswoman told the AP last year that the department decided not to continue paying for it after 2013 “given that this service is not achieving the outcome for which it was designed.”

A RIDOT spokesman did not return a message seeking comment.

In place of the free rides on AQA days, RIPTA is launching a new program, called the “Try Transit Clean Air Challenge.” It will give Rhode Islanders five free all-day passes if they take part. To participate, people will have to fill out a survey on RIPTA’s website about their travel habits.

The offer is only available in July and August, but once people sign up, they can use the passes any time.

“We hope this new program appeals to commuters and that after trying RIPTA, they find that we’re a good alternative for them and that they become regular riders,” Polichetti said.

The new Try Transit Clean Air Challenge is funded by a federal grant under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ) plus a required local match which is being covered by RIPTA.

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