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Rider getting free transit through pilot program: “It's been a blessing.” | The Homepage

By Juliet Martinez

A family stands together outdoors on grass with a wooded hillside behind them. From left, a young brown-skinned teen in a red hoodie; a brown-skinned teen with cornrows and headphones with a black sweatshirt; a brown-skinned smiling woman wears glasses and a dark purple coat. Front left: a slender, brown-skinned child with box braids wears a black sweatshirt with the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center logo in yellow; a small brown-skinned girl smiles at the camera wearing a white and purple patterned coat.
Tameeka Jones-Cuff (right rear) near her home in Glen Hazel with her four children, Jaylon, 14 (left rear), Nyron, 11 (left front), Keyvion, 15 (center), and McKayla, 5 (right front). Photo by Juliet Martinez

Tameeka Jones-Cuff's horizons have expanded since she joined a pilot program that gave her family free access to public transit.

“Public transportation is difficult because I have six family members,” she said. “It was very costly to go anywhere. We spent most of our time at home.”

The Glen Hazel mother of four has a chronic illness. When she was stuck at home with her three sons, ages 15, 14 and 11, and her 5-year-old daughter, she missed medical and therapy appointments for her and her sons, who have disabilities.

But free transportation has meant they can take care of those needs and seek out more enriching experiences.

“It’s been a blessing to get that discount,” she said. “We've gone to museums. We have been able to go to the symphony and do more with my kids and my family.”

“My kids were so happy to get out of the house,” she said.

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services announced the free- and reduced-fare pilot program in September. The department accepted applications starting in November; enrolment closed on February 12. Anyone who received supplemental nutrition or SNAP benefits from November on could apply. Participants were randomly assigned to receive free fares on Pittsburgh Regional Transit, half-price fares or a $10 Connect Card but no discount. The department issued a statement that more than 8,200 people joined the program, which is expected to last until early 2024.

During that time, researchers will evaluate the information they collect from participants to measure the effects of free and reduced-cost public transportation fares on their ability to access department services and community life.

The Fair Fares Coalition lobbied for fare reductions for SNAP recipients for more than five years. The group of transit advocates including Pittsburghers for Public Transit, Just Harvest, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, Urbankind Institute, and Equitable and Just Greater Pittsburgh celebrated the pilot program reaching its enrollment target and touted the benefits of free fares for low-income residents.

“A long-term, zero fare program for all SNAP households will ensure freedom of movement, economic opportunity, and investment in underserved areas, while strengthening the county’s transit system as a whole,” the group said in a February 7 statement. “The program will improve the health and employment of riders, increase ridership and bus safety, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.”

Hill District native Patrice Aaron is keenly aware of these benefits.

“I used to be stressing,” she said. “It’s hard when you don't have transportation every day.”

Ms. Aaron uses public transportation to take her 5-year-old son to school and get to her job at Wing Stop.

“When it comes to being a single mother and taking the bus, it’s not easy but a single mom will do it,” she said. “Ubers are really expensive. Either you take the bus or you don’t go.”

Even though inflation is making everything more expensive, she is in a good place, she said, and she hopes the county will make the program permanent.

“I never realized how many people were struggling,” she said, recalling a virtual meeting with the other program participants. “This program means something to people. It has changed all of our lives.”

Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.


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