A public transit rider walks from the Pittsburgh Regional Transit Blue Line's Library T Station to the park and ride lot.
A public transit rider walks from the Pittsburgh Regional Transit Blue Line's Library T Station to the park and ride lot.

Patrice Aaron received a ConnectCard in December that gives her free, unlimited public transit rides.

“It helps tremendously for me because I have a son, and I’m a single mom as well, and I need to be able to get back and forth without feeling like I have to spend hundreds of dollars,” said the 29-year-old Hill District resident.

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] will soon finish distributing discount ConnectCards to Pittsburgh Regional Transit [PRT] riders as a part of its Discounted Fares Pilot Program, and riders and organizers say it’s already changing lives. 

Anyone eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] benefits could apply to participate in the yearlong pilot during the sign-up period, which closed Feb. 12. 

DHS accepted 9,574 people into the program, but because DHS also distributed cards to family members of some applicants, 14,164 people have been granted cards, according to spokesperson Mark Bertolet. There are three types of cards: 

  • 4,583 people, a control group, get cards with a $10 “thank you” balance on them but no ongoing discount
  • 4,710 get the $10 and an ongoing 50% discount
  • 4,871 people ride for free. 

All participants have been chosen and assigned discount levels, and DHS plans to have all cards distributed by Feb. 24. DHS also hopes to share demographic information about the participants then. Some have already received their cards, which will work for one year from the date they were mailed. 

“I signed up with it just to see if I was gonna qualify,” Aaron said. “At first, I didn’t think I was gonna qualify, but I did. And it felt really good, because now I don’t have to stress over bus money every day.” 

Public transit can be expensive for frequent riders. PRT offers $25 weekly passes, $97.50 monthly passes and $1,072.50 annual passes. Because many riders cannot afford to purchase transit fare in bulk, it’s common for riders to make cash payments of $2.75 for each ride, which is more expensive than a pass for riders who take 10 or more one-way trips per week. PRT offers 50% discounts for people with disabilities, children ages 6 to 11 and Medicare recipients, and free rides for people 65 and older. 

Tameeka Jones-Cuff, another rider in the pilot program who received a 100% discount, said the program has made getting around much easier. Jones-Cuff has a medical condition that requires regular doctor’s visits and physical therapy appointments. In the past, she missed some doctor’s appointments because she didn’t have access to transportation. 

“It’s helping me get to my doctor’s appointments,” Jones-Cuff said. “It’s also helping my kids get to their appointments. That’s so very important.” 

She, her husband, who works in landscaping, and her four children all received the 100% discount cards. Beyond going to medical appointments and the grocery store, having unlimited access to free transit has empowered the family to get out of the house and enjoy themselves. 

“My kids are ecstatic to get out of the house. … We actually did a lot in the last few weeks,” Jones-Cuff said. “I’ve been able to take them to the museums. That’s the big part. We’ve been to different libraries. They were able to go out with me.” 

Pittsburghers for Public Transit [PPT] has long pushed for a low-income fares program. 

“We are celebrating the enrollment into this pilot program,” said PPT Executive Director Laura Wiens. “We know that transit riders’ lives have been transformed by having access to free and half fares. And I think, at this point, our attention is turning to ensuring that it’s a permanent program and one that’s accessible to every SNAP household in Allegheny County.”

Dana Dolney, a grassroots organizer with the Pittsburgh-area group Just Harvest, has assisted riders in applying for the pilot program. 

“I would be hard-pressed to believe that if DHS does this pilot correctly that they’re not gonna see the benefit to the population that they serve,” Dolney said. “And that it will become as clear to them as it is to me that transit is so important for public health and safety.”

Correction: Dana Dolney’s last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Matt Petras is a freelance reporter and adjunct professor based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at matt456p@gmail.com or on Twitter @mattApetras.

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