Thursday marked the launch of Allegheny County’s discounted transit fare pilot program. Facilitated through the Department of Human Services, the program will benefit low-income riders by offering free or discounted bus and subway fares for a year.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients ages 18 through 64 are eligible. The program will randomly sort 14,000 participants into one of three categories. One group will receive unlimited free fares on all Pittsburgh Regional Transit trips for a year, a second group will receive a ConnectCard that decreases the cost of PRT trips by 50%, and the third group will receive a ConnectCard preloaded with $10 but will not receive a fare discount through the pilot. 

Members of Pittsburghers for Public Transit passed out information about the new program and spoke to riders at the Smithfield bus stop on Smithfield Street and Sixth Avenue on Thursday afternoon. 

Executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit Laura Chu Wiens said the group hopes to make the program permanent following the pilot. She called public transit a right and a social utility, pointing out how it assists underserved communities.

“[The program] will show how impactful it is for people to have the freedom to move without having to pay the extraordinarily high cost of transit fares,” Wiens said. “We are fighting to ensure that this program is permanent and is free for all SNAP households once this pilot concludes.”

Applicants must have received SNAP benefits on Sept. 30, and those with disabilities who currently receive a half-fare ConnectCard are also eligible to participate. 

Over the next several weeks, riders will be able to enroll in the program at https://discountedfares.alleghenycounty.us/ or call 211. The surveys and data collected from the pilot program will help inform the county on the impact of transportation affordability on low-income residents, according to the website. 

“We’re excited to see the data and how the cost of fares can get more people on transit,” said Dan Yablonsky, director of communications for Pittsburghers for Public Transit. 

The Fair Fares for a Full Recovery Coalition has been organizing for years for zero fares for SNAP households. In September and October, Pittsburghers for Public Transit held workshops with over 120 SNAP-eligible transit riders to discuss recommendations for the program to ensure its success.

Recommendations made included making recruitment more accessible for those without internet, treating families as a single unit for the program so all members will benefit and evaluating the success of the program by including elements such as riders’ mental health, quality of life and so on. 

Wiens said the need for affordable transit “picked up in earnest” during the pandemic as many residents “struggled to survive” without easy access to food and other goods.

“It’s a critical necessity,” Wiens said. She also said many transit riders she has spoken to about the program have been enthusiastic.

Alexis Dyer of East Liberty is visually impaired and relies on buses and Uber rides to get around as she does not drive. She said she moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Pittsburgh for better transit opportunities.

Dyer said because she is unemployed she doesn’t have the monthly or annual pass so she just “throws money” on her ConnectCard when she needs to ride the bus. However, these card refills add up to be more expensive than she thinks is necessary for some.

“A lot of folks are disadvantaged, and if we can get more cards in the hands of the people that really need it [that’d be great] because it is still serving a lot of people who don’t have cars or have access to certain things,” Dyer said. “Some places around town are still food deserts, so it lets people get out and get actual food.”

Pittsburghers for Public Transit’s Yablonsky said the program has been in the works for over three years. 

“It feels really big and important,” he said of the Thursday launch. “It’s one of these magic moments where people’s power makes things happen.”

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Hannah Wyman

Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.