- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Elderly or disabled people on low incomes who have been allowed to ride Rhode Island’s public bus system for free aren’t happy that they will have to start paying this week.

Dozens of riders gathered in a Providence park on Tuesday to urge state leaders to stop the change that takes effect Wednesday.

Blossom Segaloff said she uses the no-fare pass almost every day. The 86-year-old said it keeps her from being isolated at home.

“I’m kind of a recluse, but I like to be able to go to a coffee shop, sip some coffee and be surrounded by people,” she said. “It’s my little social life.”

Passengers who had qualified for the free rides will have to pay 50 cents per ride on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses. The full fare is $2.

“A lot of people with a comfortable income don’t understand what 50 cents, or 25 cents for a transfer, means for someone in my situation,” Segaloff said.

Just an hour before the rally began, the administration of Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo unveiled a pilot program to give away free 10-trip tickets each month for some people who were previously able to ride for free. The state’s Division of Elderly Affairs and its Office of Veterans Affairs will begin distributing the cards this week on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Advocates and riders said it’s inadequate because it’s only for senior citizens and veterans, not the disabled, and because many riders take far more than 10 trips a month.

Many of the riders who attended the Tuesday morning rally in Providence’s Burnside Park have disabilities that limit their mobility. State leaders said that Medicaid coverage already pays for bus trips to non-emergency medical destinations such as doctor’s visits and physical therapy appointments. But riders said they also depend on the bus to get to grocery stores, community centers or to church on Sundays.

The riders were critical of Raimondo, the RIPTA bus authority leadership and the state’s General Assembly for not doing more to save the free passes that have existed for decades. State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would reinstate the free passes, but the legislative process to consider it could take months. Raimondo has allocated $150,000 for the free 10-trip tickets and is proposing another $300,000 for the next fiscal year that begins in July.

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