Until this fall, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, commonly known as The T, provided free bus passes for people who are poor, homeless or disabled primarily through social service agencies that serve those communities.
However, for reasons that are not exactly clear, The T has pulled back. But because Mayor Betsy Price is responsible for appointing The T Board that decided to end free bus rides, we should be confident that she has the power to get the T back on the proper route to provide free bus rides for those who need them.
These free bus rides, provided by a program dubbed FAREAid, helped people get to job interviews, work and doctor’s appointments. They did not cost The T anything because the buses were already driving the routes.
As a small-business owner who pays my fair share in taxes, I believe one of the roles of government is to help those who are the least fortunate among us. As my family learned when I was a child and our house burned down, the fortunes of a family can turn instantly through circumstances beyond our control. By a twist of fate as a result of a lost career, traumatic military service, catastrophic accident or serious health condition, any one of us could find ourselves poor, homeless or disabled. There but for the grace of God go we.
The T Board is made up of nine members, eight appointed by the Fort Worth City Council and one by the Tarrant County Commissioners Court.
The T provided free bus service primarily through bus passes to social service agencies, which, in turn, would distribute the passes to their clientele.
In 2012, Mayor Price understandably became frustrated with The T’s lack of progress in providing TexRail service from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The mayor convinced the City Council to remove all of its appointees to The T Board and appoint new members to shake things up and jump start TexRail efforts.
Shortly thereafter The T president “retired,” and Nashville transit official Paul Ballard was selected to replace him. In Nashville, the transit authority discontinued free bus rides for low-income and homeless riders. Shortly after Ballard took the helm of The T, social service agencies around Fort Worth were informed that The T would no longer offer free bus rides through FAREAid.
The reason for this decision is not really clear. With assets that are 271 percent of its operating budget, The T is in good fiscal shape. FAREAid just let folks ride the bus that was already going their way. There is room on the buses. The T’s own data show they operate at about 48 percent capacity.
Some T officials have said fraud is a problem because some social service agencies hand out all their bus passes on one day each month, which may have encouraged some recipients to sell the passes. It seems like that could easily be dealt with by instructing the agencies to distribute a limited number of passes at a time.
Some have suggested that The T needs to change its look to attract new riders. These sentiments are misguided in assuming both that those who get free bus rides are discouraging new ridership and that The T should discourage anyone who needs transportation from using the bus.
Some have argued that The T is not a social service agency so it should not offer free rides. The government, which acts collectively on behalf of all of us, has a duty to help the less fortunate.
Others say social service agencies should pay for these rides. But that would divert resources from the mission of those agencies, many of them charities that are financially strapped, and it would further burden an already generous business and philanthropic community to pay for something The T could do for almost free.
I don’t know anything about how things are done in Nashville. But in Fort Worth, we have a way of getting stakeholders to the table and trying to come up with solutions that address valid concerns. That’s not happening in this case. Indeed, agencies report that The T initially refused to even sit down and discuss its new policy. That does not sound like the Fort Worth way I have heard about.
I am not convinced that Mayor Price wanted to end free bus rides when she led the effort to replace The T Board, but that was the result. So now the mayor needs to lead the effort to fix it because it appears The T refuses to do so.
I have every confidence that if the mayor sets her mind and her heart to it, she can get this done in a way that helps those in need without burdening already strained social service agencies.
Let’s get moving on restoring free bus rides for the poor, homeless and disabled.
Jason C. N. Smith is a Fort Worth attorney, dog lover and father of 5-year-old twins.