Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Allegheny County enrolls 14,500 residents in its discounted bus fare pilot program

A bus retrofitted with the new Pittsburgh Regional Transit design.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
A bus retrofitted with the new Pittsburgh Regional Transit design.

Tameeka Jones-Cuff has been working since she was 13 years old. A few years back, however, she lost mobility in one of her legs.

Jones-Cuff said her diagnosis forced her to leave her job, and she hasn’t been able to work since.

“Having to leave my job due to my physical health, I didn't have enough,” she said. “I barely had enough to pay my bills, so I definitely didn't have enough for transportation.”

Jones-Cuff said she couldn’t afford to travel to the doctor for her leg or take her sons to therapy appointments. All three are on the autism and ADHD spectrums.

She couldn’t leave her kids at home alone, so leaving the house with one of them meant leaving with the whole family in tow.

The family doesn’t have a car and relies on the city’s bus system to get around. Since each Pittsburgh Regional Transit cash fare costs $2.75, each roundtrip on the bus cost the family roughly $33.

Jones-Cuff said — to avoid the cost of transportation — the family spent most of their days at home or in the community of Hazelwood.

“We stayed in the neighborhood,” she said. “There were very important appointments we missed.”

She said the isolation took a toll on her children’s social well-being. They began having trouble in school and lacked motivation.

“They were depressed because we didn't leave,” Jones-Cuff recalled.

Things took a turn for the better last year, when she enrolled her family in the county’s discounted bus fare pilot program .The Jones-Cuffs are among more than 14,500 other Allegheny County residents — including nearly 5,000 children — participating in the Department of Human Services’ initiative, created as a way to study the demand for low- and no-cost public transit.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Interested in development and transportation around the region? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one with unlimited free PRT trips over the course of a year, another to get a 50% discount on each PRT trip and a control group that received a ConnectCard preloaded with $10, but no further discounts.

To qualify for the pilot, individuals must have received federal food assistance benefits between September and November of last year, and may not already have a PRT discount through a school or employer.

Both Jones-Cuff and her kids were given free passes for 12 months, which she said has made all the difference. With it, the family can get to their appointments or go grocery shopping without the stress of multiple costly fares.

Jones-Cuff said she now takes her kids to libraries across the city, as well as museums and plays.

“I've seen them open up from when they were shy and would hide away,” she continued. “I just see the drastic change and I'm so grateful that I had this opportunity — and that I took this opportunity.”

The county released initial data on the program’s nearly 16,000 applicants earlier this spring. More than 80% said they relied on public transit for transportation, and most paid fares per ride rather than use a weekly or monthly pass.

More than half of all respondents said the weekly public transit costs for a single individual exceeded $25, which is more than the cost of a weekly bus pass.

“[Pittsburghers for Public Transit] has long said that there is a poor tax that is built into our transit system through the cash fare costs,” said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of the group that advocates on behalf of both transit riders and workers. “And it's really self-evident in this.”

Many people who pay with cash do so because they don’t have bank accounts or credit cards with which they can easily purchase and reload credits onto a bus pass.

“So, I think that is one way that the program is serving people with the greatest need,” Chu Wiens continued. “It's alleviating [the burden for] cash users, low-income riders [who] are paying much, much more than the average rider.”

Pittsburghers for Public Transit is among the groups calling on the county to make a fare-free program for all SNAP recipients permanent.

“This program allows for a freedom of movement that has really changed people's quality of lives,” Chu Wiens said.

It’s unclear, though, how the county could financially sustain the program. As part of its agreement with PRT, the county has paid for the pilot participants’ passes.

Representatives at DHS declined multiple interview requests.

The county is expected to release a six-month update on the program in September.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.