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Cap Metro expands free rides to cooling centers. Advocates for homeless Austinites push for more.

Thursday, August 11, 2022 by Skye Seipp, KUT

Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Tuesday it will give free rides to cooling centers on days when a heat advisory is in effect – that is usually when the temperature hits 103 degrees or higher.

Previously, the transit agency offered free rides on days when the temperature was expected to be 105.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness say the change does not address the issue. They had pushed the agency to offer rides for free throughout August and September as a way to help people escape the heat.

Barry Jones, a member of the nonprofit Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, said the heat is a public health concern for an already vulnerable population.

“I’d like to say I’m happy they lowered it, but realistically, that’s not going to get it,” said Jones, who has been homeless for eight years. “You’re still putting people at risk by having them walk around in this heat, even up to 103. Two degrees is not that meaningful.”

Capital Metro’s communication specialist, Blythe Nebeker, said the agency did not waive fares for all rides because it’s “not in a position” to do so. She also said it’s “operationally infeasible” to give free rides on an individual basis for people experiencing homelessness.

“We understand the purpose of the requests is to help those most in need and are confident that expanding the eligibility to days with a heat advisory will reach a broader group of those in need without creating an additional burden on these organizations to distribute passes,” Nebeker said in an email. “We also believe this approach will reach beyond the unhoused to those who simply need a cool place to be because they don’t have access to air conditioning.”

To get a free ride, passengers must ask the driver or conductor to take them to a cooling center when boarding.

Jones said THRA is meeting with Capital Metro’s director next week and that it will continue to push for free fares. A THRA petition had collected more than 570 signatures as of Tuesday.

Paulette Soltani, THRA’s director of organizing, said one issue with tying free service to a heat advisory is that some days, one isn’t called despite temperatures hitting 103.

She also said people experiencing homelessness often haven’t been able to get free ride, even on days when an excessive heat warning was in place.

Nebeker said Capital Metro is working to ensure all operators know the updated policy and won’t deny a ride or pass a stop where someone is looking to get on.

Soltani said many people in the community don’t even know about the program.

“We’re calling for free rides because the heat is killing people,” she said. “We’re experiencing the hottest summer we’ve ever experienced. We need our transit agency to really step up and help people during these dangerous conditions.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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