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Transit fund celebrates 5 million discounted rides

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Getting around is still the second-greatest cost for Austin residents, but the Transit Empowerment Fund – a collaborative effort between the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Austin Community Foundation and One Voice Central Texas – has eased that financial burden for a portion of the community’s most vulnerable residents.

The TEF Board celebrated a milestone at the Capital Metro board meeting Monday afternoon, for providing 5 million low-cost transit rides to customers since the fund began in 2011.

Through donations from Capital Metro and other community partners, TEF allows nonprofit organizations to purchase transit passes at discounted rates for distribution to transit-dependent individuals for a fraction of the standard fare cost or for free.

Discounted passes are reserved for people without viable transportation options who live within the Capital Metro service network. These individuals are all living at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level – earning $18,210 or less for a household of one – and need transit to get to work, classes, medical care, or other social services. The people typically fall into one or more categories compromising their ability to cover the cost of transportation. Recipients may be over the age of 65 or under the age of 18, living with disabilities, dependent on Medicare, working at low-wage jobs, experiencing homelessness, or living as a refugee.

Depending on their specific needs and availability of funds, individuals may receive transit passes ranging from daily bus passes to monthly commuter passes at various discounted rates or free of charge.

Since 2011, 74 nonprofit organizations have purchased transit passes through the program and 37 are actively distributing passes. Travis County has also participated in the annual transit pass program for several consecutive years, approving nearly $33,000 last month for the purchase of 4,500 discounted local and commuter passes to offer individuals in need.

With fare revenue making up only about 7.5 percent of Capital Metro’s total budget, the agency has taken a number of steps in recent years to keep fares low. The agency got rid of its premium fares on MetroRapid and MetroFlyer routes in January 2018, making them the same price as local routes, and the board voted in December to make all Capital Metro services free for Austin Independent School District students.

While the agency has yet to implement more innovative solutions such as fare capping to ensure low-income customers never pay more than the cost of a monthly pass over the course of 31 days, CEO Randy Clarke has noted an interest in doing so if the agency is able to implement an account-based fare system that can keep track of purchases.

In the meantime, Capital Metro Board Chair Wade Cooper said that the work of TEF will become even more essential as the agency works to build out a true regional transit system and more people come to rely on Capital Metro service.

Janet Allen, 2019 chair of the TEF Board, said that the fund has contributed roughly 1 million discounted rides each year since 2016, making up 3.66 percent of total Capital Metro rides in 2018.

Allen thanked Capital Metro and the TEF Community Board for material support and helping manage the transit pass program. She also thanked the TEF lead corporate sponsor, RATP Dev, and the Austin Community Foundation, the nonprofit organization that houses the TEF funds.

In addition to the transit pass program, the Transit Empowerment Fund also offers microgrants (awards of up to $1,000 for events or short-term innovative transportation projects) and larger demonstration projects.

Allen said TEF hopes to get contracts signed soon to start two new demonstration projects this year. One of those, the United Way project, plans to explore innovative transportation solutions for food-serving nonprofits. Another, the Housing Authority of Travis County Foundation project, seeks to align transportation needs of Travis County residents with the county’s workforce master plan in order to connect residents with vocational training, education or work.

TEF has allocated $50,000 total for each potential pilot program, including the planning phase. Each project will require a preliminary assessment period of three to six months before the TEF Board chooses whether or not to implement a pilot program.

Photo by Lee D’Angelo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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