Low Income Transit Riders in Rhode Island Find Their Voice

On July 1, 2017, the Rhode Island Transit Agency (RIPTA) restored the No Fare Bus Pass Program for 13,500 low-income elderly and disabled riders thanks to a new two-year allocation of $6.8 million by the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Earlier this year, RIPTA raised transit fares to 50 cents for a one-way ride plus 25 cents for a transfer. The fare increase was a disaster for low income elderly and disabled riders. Soup kitchens saw a 25 percent decrease in attendance because people couldn’t afford to get there. Elderly riders were stuck in their homes at the end of the each month when their money ran out. People with serious health conditions were walking unsafe distances because they couldn’t afford the fares. Riders couldn’t afford to do their food shopping, visit family and friends, attend support group meetings, or participate in volunteer activities.

The Rhode Island Organizing Project (RIOP), along with members of the No Fare Bus Pass Coalition, fought for nearly two years to restore the program. We were ultimately successful in saving the No Fare Pass Program due to the courage and tenacity of the riders. Community residents bravely told their stories at rallies, hearings and to the media. They spoke of the indignities of living on limited incomes and the suffering the fare increase imposed upon them. They turned out to rallies and meetings in the rain and freezing cold. They sat through hearings for hours to tell public officials their stories.

During the campaign I came to understand the daily struggles of people who have to live on less than $800 per month. I also came away with profound admiration for the riders I worked with. Many of them worked hard to make their communities a better place to live. I was most impressed with their courage, as most of the people we worked with had never before spoken at public events. At one training on teaching new participants in the campaign how to tell their stories, I went around the room and asked those involved in the campaign if it was hard for them to speak. Many of the participants in the training told me they were afraid to tell their stories but knew they needed to speak up for those who were not able to do so.

We live in challenging times. Vital programs that the poor and elderly depend upon are under assault. This campaign gave me the hope that we can organize together to build a just society for all.

Raymond Gagne, Jr., Lead Organizer, Rhode Island Organizing Project