- Associated Press - Thursday, December 24, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The leader of the state Senate wants to revisit a controversial fare hike set to take effect next year for disabled and low-income elderly bus riders who for decades have been able to ride for free.

While most public transit agencies around the United States give a discount to passengers who are disabled or over the age of 65, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority is one of a handful that lets eligible riders board without paying a fare.

The agency said the free rides are no longer sustainable and this month approved a new fare of 50 cents that begins in July. The fare is a deep discount from the full fare of $2. The agency originally proposed $1 but compromised after Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and advocates for the poor and disabled sought a lower amount.

“I’m very concerned about the imposition of that fee,” Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat from Newport, said in an interview ahead of the 2016 legislative session. “I was glad the governor delayed it and reduced it from the original proposal. However, I’d like to see it eliminated completely.”

But getting the fare back to zero is not a sustainable option, said bus agency spokeswoman Barbara Polichetti. One reason is because if there is no fare, the agency can’t be reimbursed by the federal government for providing nonemergency medical trips covered by Medicaid.

No-fare ridership has grown since the state hired Atlanta-based LogistiCare last year to coordinate transportation for Medicaid beneficiaries, leading Polichetti and others to believe the vendor is simply encouraging many of its clients to take the public bus.

Lawmakers had passed a last-minute bill in June allowing RIPTA to charge the fare for the first time in four decades to fill a budget hole. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said the bus agency asked for the bill, and he has no plans to revisit it because the alternative is cutting routes.

“When you have a structural deficit and every other state does it a certain way, you have to consider the option that maybe the other states do it for a particular reason,” said Mattiello, a Democrat from Cranston.

Those who ride for free are nearly a quarter of RIPTA’s total ridership, a ratio that exceeds the other no-fare programs offered in cities such as San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Raimondo said her long-term strategy is to improve the bus system so it attracts more riders and increases revenue that can help cover those who can’t afford it. In the meantime, she is looking for another solution to help the most vulnerable.

“If your only way to get to the doctor is the public bus and you don’t have 50 cents or $1, times however many times a week you have to go to the doctor, that’s a public health problem,” she said. “We’re working on that piece of it in particular.”

Advocates say they are concerned not just with medical trips but also with getting people out of their homes to social activities, preventing the isolation that can harm a person’s health.

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