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Advocates call for free Cap Metro fares for Austin’s unhoused

Wednesday, July 27, 2022 by Samuel Stark

On Monday, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors unanimously approved the implementation of a new system that caps the amount riders pay for fares. Another part of the system provides reduced fares for people with lower incomes, called Equifare. But before they voted, some Austinites voiced their concerns saying the reduced fares do not go far enough to aid Austin’s unhoused.

“The vast majority of our unhoused neighbors have no income at all and are dependent on buses for transportation,” Emily Seales, a social worker with the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center, said. “Without income, or with extremely limited income, people experiencing homelessness rely on organizations, many of which are small nonprofits and faith-based organizations, for local bus passes.”

The new system allows riders to use a smartphone app or the new Amp card to pay for Capital Metro fares. When implemented, riders will stop being charged once they have reached the equivalent amount for a day pass, currently $2.50.

The Equifare rate, for a lower-income rider, offers 20 percent off the standard fare: $1 instead of $1.25 for a one-way ride and $33 instead of $41.25 for a monthly pass.

To gain access to the program, a customer must apply online or at a transit store and meet the eligibility requirement of earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level – $27,180 a year for a one-person household. Capital Metro set its eligibility requirements based on other community assistance programs, like SNAP food benefits.

“I have voiced my appreciation that this is a step in the right direction, but a baby step and not enough for our community’s most vulnerable. The same burdens will continue. People experiencing homelessness will not have the funds to load on the Amp cards and understaffed or volunteer-led groups, who are already overburdened, will be asked to step up and carry more weight,” Seales said.

“We’re urgently asking you to work with us and many others who are calling for free fares to roll out a free fare program for people experiencing homelessness,” said Paulette Soltani, the organizing director of Texas Harm Reduction Alliance.

Some Capital Metro board members said they heard the concerns of the speakers and promised that the team behind the new fare system would work with their groups through continued community outreach efforts.

“We absolutely hear the concerns and want to make sure that folks are able to get the transportation they need,” Dottie Watkins, interim president and CEO of Capital Metro, said.

Other board members acknowledged the problems facing unhoused people, but raised the concern of passenger fares as a revenue source, saying that Capital Metro still aspires to receive 20 percent of its revenue from passenger fares.

“In my tenure on the board, I don’t think we’ve ever reached 10 percent … maybe 8 percent on a good day,” said Wade Cooper, a Capital Metro board member.

“As we think about fares, and particularly with the call from the public to do more things for free or lesser dollars, we have to be both realistic about what we can and can’t do,” Cooper added.

“I think it’s a matter of full and open discussion of the folks that are the most needy amongst us, what we can do for them, what it would cost us and what the trade-offs would be,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, vice chair of Capital Metro’s board of directors.

Though the new fare system was approved by the board, it will not be fully implemented until early 2023. The study team will be conducting an internal and external pilot initiative over the coming months and will continue community engagement throughout the process.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to clarify the role of Equifare.

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