AUSTIN (KXAN) — Community advocates reiterated calls for free CapMetro transit services for people experiencing homelessness during the transit authority’s board meeting Monday. The requests came as the transit authority’s complimentary rides to city-run cooling centers is expected to expire Sept. 30.

Paulette Soltani, organizing director with the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, told KXAN Monday they are striving for a permanent solution to an ongoing issue impacting people experiencing homelessness. In August, Soltani testified before the CapMetro board of directors on the difficulties accessing free bus passes from partner organizations, including hundreds of people lining up in the early mornings for a limited number of passes.

“This isn’t just about the summer months,” Soltani told KXAN Monday. “It’s really about people not having bus services to get to anything that they need to do, for people experiencing homelessness.”

Some unhoused residents told board members Monday they are dependent on bus access to get to and from medical appointments, meetings with their case managers and to seek out some reprieve during extreme temperatures. Their call was for a free, 31-day pass to alleviate some of the cost burdens that would come through a monthly bus pass purchase.

“We’ve all identified a problem and [the CapMetro board] agrees that it’s a problem,” Soltani said. “And so long term, we need a permanent free fares program.”

Other residents Monday said not every bus driver has adhered to the complimentary ride offerings to cooling centers, adding they’d been denied access to buses due to an inability to pay the fare.

One CapMetro bus driver who spoke before the board Monday said the issue wasn’t black and white. She said there are safety concerns that can arise between bus drivers and unhoused residents, adding the current system in place has sometimes created tension between drivers and unhoused riders.

The Transit Empowerment Fund works alongside local nonprofit and community partners to distribute transit passes to low-income residents who are dependent on CapMetro transportation access. TEF’s Board Director Andrew Levack told CapMetro board members in a memo the entity is working on the following requests:

  • Reducing reporting efforts for nonprofit organizations enrolled in the bus pass program
  • Reducing financial burdens on nonprofit organizations enrolled in the bus pass program; nonprofits currently pay a portion of the expenses necessary for the discounted passes
  • Increase the number of free passes available for low-income riders
  • Look into efforts for how CapMetro’s Amp cards and EquiFare can improve transit access for low-income riders
  • Look into how free passes can be given to low-income residents through the Homeless Management Information System database

Speaking before the board Monday, Levack acknowledged the requests for more permanent solutions made by community partners and residents. On Oct. 5, the TEF board will host a forum for nonprofit organizations and bus pass program partners from 10-11:30 a.m. More details on that meeting format are to come.