Allegheny County will start a one-year Discounted Fares Pilot Program in mid-November, giving a test group of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients help with transit costs to shape a potential future program. 

“We know that where people live, work, shop or receive healthcare are not always the same. The cost of transportation can be a barrier to taking advantage of opportunities or accessing services,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said via a press release announcing the pilot, to be run by the Department of Human Services [DHS]. 

“Our goal is to find ways to help the most vulnerable in our community connect with the resources they need to benefit themselves, their families and their communities.”

A long-term program shaped by the results of the pilot may launch in late 2023, according to the press release. The pilot will use a random selection of adult volunteers who are SNAP food program recipients and younger than 65. 

The county has not yet announced the number of participants or the amount of a discount. The county will explain how to apply for the pilot program and provide other details by the end of October, according to the press release. 

Laura Wiens, head of activist organization Pittsburghers for Public Transit [PPT], applauded Allegheny County and DHS for moving forward with this pilot program. She believes this move came from an understanding on the part of the county and DHS of the need for some sort of fare relief in addition to calls from riders and activists. 

“DHS in particular has recognized how strongly transit, and fare costs specifically, acts as a barrier to movement for low-income people and really took the lead in creating and advancing this program and funding this program,” Wiens said. “And I think we have been very active in organizing riders, and riders themselves have been calling for this program for years now and, over the last two years, there’s been a strong coalition.” 

Laura Wiens, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

PPT has long advocated for a low-income fares program and would favor the program reducing fares to nothing, including for holders of the Electronic Benefit Transfer [EBT] cards through which the state distributes aid to families. 

“We have been very explicit that what we’re looking for is a zero-fare program for EBT-holding or SNAP-eligible households in Allegheny County, because we know that for low-income and very low-income households, even a half-fare discount or other fare discount can be an insurmountable barrier to access to transportation,” Wiens said. 

When bus fare eats into grocery money

Just Harvest spokesperson Emily Cleath said there’s always been a need for fare relief but that the pandemic exacerbated it and prompted activists to push harder as they witnessed public transit’s role in maintaining jobs or getting medical services like vaccination and treatment. 

Performing simple tasks like grocery shopping can become expensive for residents relying on public transit, Cleath said. 

“If they could just show their SNAP card on a bus, it’s a huge stress relief for them, to be able to not have to budget to go get food,” Cleath said. “They can just hop on a bus and go get the food that they need.”

Alisa Grishman, an Uptown resident who uses a wheelchair, relies on public transit. She’s a SNAP recipient and already pays half-price fares because of a discount provided by Pittsburgh Regional Transit for people with disabilities. 

However, because she uses transit so often and relies on about $900 a month from Social Security disability payments, the fare cost still proves difficult. She’s canceled doctor’s appointments in the past because she couldn’t afford bus fare that day. 

Alisa Grishman, an accessibility advocate, will sometimes travel using her wheelchair so that bus fare doesn’t eat into her modest budget. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Sometimes, she’ll “walk” — meaning use her wheelchair, she explained — to cut costs. 

“There’s days that … I’ll walk to things rather than taking the bus just to save the $2.50 roundtrip if it’s going to be more than three hours, just to save that money,” Grishman said. 

Riders can benefit from slight discounts if they purchase a weekly, monthly or yearly pass instead of simply loading a Connect Card with money, but Grishman needs transit different numbers of times each week. She typically uses public transit at least three or four days a week, she said, and fully eliminating bus fares would help her “enormously.” 

“My health will benefit from that [and] just my happiness, being able to go do things for fun and not having to ration out how many bus rides I have left for the month. But people don’t think about happiness for people on SNAP,” Grishman said. “They only think about basic necessities.” 

It’s not unusual for SNAP recipient Teaira Collins to use public transit six to 10 times in a single day. The 48-year-old Hill District resident frequently rides buses to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments for herself and her children. While it has since grown, her only income last year came from Social Security disability and child support. Bus fare ate up a lot of that money. 

Teaira Collins, a member of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, speaks at a 2020 rally for fare relief. (Courtesy of Pittsburghers for Public Transit)

“To be able to even afford a weekly [pass] was impossible, because once I paid the rent, the light, the gas and my household supplies and clothes and whatever else you need, there really wasn’t nothing left over,” Collins said. 

Frustrated by the financial burden of her fares, Collins got involved with PPT about five years ago to fight for reduced fares and other changes to the local transit system. She would welcome any reduction in fares for low-income riders but believes fully eliminating fares would be best.

Through her activism, Collins has seen just how many struggling people could benefit from such a program. For the trial run, she wonders who will be chosen and how that process will function. If she isn’t chosen but people who really need it can join the pilot, she’ll be happy. 

“I’m not struggling like I was a year ago,” Collins said. “I want to see the people who are truly struggling get the help they need.”

Matt Petras is an independent writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at matt456p@gmail.com or on Twitter @mattApetras.

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