The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) has approved a six-month pilot to extend half-price transit discounts to low-income customers across Columbus.
The scheme – which kicks off on 1 March – will see those eligible for public income assistance benefit from 50 percent discounts through the authority’s new account-based digital fare management system.
COTA will gather and analyse data during the pilot before bringing recommendations to the Board of Trustees for a finalised low-income fare structure.
The authority predicts a 33 percent increase in ridership among participating eligible low-income customers, but also expects a subsequent loss in revenue.
“As part of our evaluation [for the pilot] we looked at our numbers pre-COVID and found that if previous levels of ridership and fares were to be in place, [the pilot] would [result in] a US$1.3 million loss in revenue to COTA annually,” Angel Mumma, Chief Financial Officer, COTA told capitaltribunenews.com.
“But because we are nowhere near pre-COVID ridership, I think it’s going to take us a couple of years to fully recognise that loss in revenue.”
Mission over margin
COTA has received over US$100 million in COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government, which Mumma says has been a contributing factor in introducing the scheme.
Angel Mumma, Chief Financial Officer, COTA
“Really it’s mission over margin – we need to do right by the community and it’s not appropriate for us to have a significant amount of savings in the bank and just sit on those funds we have received from the federal government and not put them to use with a programme like this.
“In my mind that is irresponsible, and I say that as the CFO. Our role is to provide services to the community and serve them in a fiscally responsible way.
“I think we have to balance the two – we are not a bank that just sits on a lot of money and reduces our services just so we can build up this stockpile.”
She added: “Having said that, we have to be cognizant of our financial sustainability, and there will be a time in the next couple of years where we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions – but right now, we have the ability to do it.”
Digital fare system
Eligible customers can apply for discounted fares at COTA’s Customer Experience Center in downtown Columbus, where they will need to provide documentation showing proof of enrollment in one of five low-income assistance programmes.
Certain groups in the region already qualify for discounted fares, including children, the elderly, veterans and eligible disabled customers, and the authority hopes the new structure will serve to boost equity.
Last November, a new digital fare system was introduced which caps all fares at US$4.50 a day or US$62 a month when customers use a smartphone app or smartcard.
Those who pay cash on board do not benefit from the caps – or the new 50 percent discount – but can access and credit smartcards at a number of service points across Columbus.
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