Cap Metro Says Free Fares “Infeasible” Despite Advocate Push
Hot weather makes free rides more important
During Austin's hottest July on record, Capital Metro began offering free rides to city-run cooling centers whenever the National Weather Service issued excessive heat advisories at 103 degrees. Before, the minimum was 105 degrees, but Paulette Soltani, who directs organizing for the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, says that change isn't enough. THRA's petition for Cap Metro to offer free rides during the hot months of August and September without a degree minimum, which as of press time has garnered 749 signatures, has ignited a longer-term demand to extend free rides permanently. So far, Cap Metro has refused.
Leaving aside that long-term goal, many in the unhoused community – those most vulnerable to the elements – say the current free-ride program isn't always being executed properly. Cap Metro's Operations Control Center sends a message to all drivers via radio calls and mobile terminals on each bus, and those messages are repeated throughout the day, but THRA's Barry Jones says, "A lot of people have [been] trying to get to a cooling center and the driver does not know of any program." Another issue is communication with the public; many don't know of the policy until THRA tells them, Jones said. Cap Metro spokesperson Tawaun Cole told the Chronicle that in addition to notifying city and social service partners, "[we] will begin sending out MetroAlerts to inform our customers."
This Monday, THRA met with Cap Metro interim CEO Dottie Watkins, who, according to Jones, "seemed like she was on the same page as far as the fundamental idea of giving homeless people access to Metro services." Cole told the Chronicle, "We understand the purpose of [THRA's] 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 ... without creating an additional burden on these organizations to distribute passes. Our intent is to be transparent about this with the community – waiving fares for the unhoused only is operationally infeasible on an individual basis, and we are not in a position to waive fares for all."
Despite this roadblock, Soltani says THRA and Cap Metro are working together to expand access to the Amp card, an account-based system that Cap Metro is piloting this fall to let low-income customers access savings that come with day or monthly passes, instead of buying a single-use pass. Cap Metro already provides a reduced fare to seniors over 65, Medicare card holders, the disabled, and military personnel, but is also proposing "Equifare," which would serve customers whose household income falls below 200% of the federal poverty level or who are already enrolled in the Homeless Management Information System database or social assistance programs like Central Health's Medical Access Program. Cole says Cap Metro is also working with the Transit Empowerment Fund to "see how we can integrate their existing program that provides bus passes to riders who need to use our system the most."
Soltani says THRA "want[s] to work with Cap Metro towards a permanent program, but ... it's not acceptable to us for an agency to acknowledge that their policy is broken and do nothing to fix it." Jones says bus service is necessary for the unhoused, as "you can't live without accessing services – you have to go where you can eat or to your medical appointments or pharmacy or one of the agencies that's helping you apply for a job. A lot of people in the heat right now have medical conditions ... these are real health and safety issues. I'd like to think that Metro would step up and do something over these two months until they get this [Amp card] system in place."
THRA will hold a rally for free bus fare at Cap Metro HQ, 2910 E. Fifth, at 2pm this Friday, Aug. 19.
* Editor's note Thursday 8-18 2:01 pm: On August 18, after this story was published, CapMetro updated their policy: "After extensive conversations with members of our community, we will now provide complimentary rides to cooling centers from now until September 30, effective immediately, regardless of an active heat advisory or excessive heat warning."