Shaun Sheppard poses for a photo while riding Metro Transit’s Green Line in Downtown Minneapolis on Sept. 1, 2021. Sheppard credits Metro Transit’s Transit Assistance Program in helping with his finances. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.
A little known transit assistance program that offers train and bus fare for a buck remains largely untapped by the more than 600,000 metro Minnesotans who are currently eligible.
People who are on an array of public assistance programs like Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare, unemployment, food stamps, energy assistance, free or reduced lunch or live in public housing are eligible for the transit benefit, which saves them between $1.50 and $2 per ride. The Metropolitan Council estimates 624,000 people in the metro are eligible for the program just by income alone — but just 1% are using it.
Beneficiaries say the savings go a long way.
“It helps a lot,” said Shaun Sheppard, a Minneapolis resident who said he saves about $40 per month. He uses transit a lot getting to his job managing a Domino’s near the University of Minnesota while picking up an array of side hustles like performing and catering.
Launched in 2017, the Transit Assistance Program was a product of a two-year pilot in expanding transit access for low-income people. Metro Transit started in 2015 with 300 enrollees who were receiving housing assistance from the Metropolitan Council — Metro Transit’s parent agency — and expanded it to a pilot of 3,000 users in 2016. Those eligible to participate are between the ages of 13 to 65 and receive some form of public benefits.
The agency has circulated over 20,000 program cards since its inception, and had 6,700 enrollees actively using the card at its peak in October 2019. About 3% of the system’s 2019 and 2020 ridership — 77.9 million and 35.9 million rides, respectively — were those on the TAP program. While the program cost an estimated $1.36 million in fare revenue in 2019, the agency considers it a worthy investment. Since most TAP users ride outside of rush hour, the agency’s spokesperson Laura Baenen said they can readily accommodate these riders, owing to not having to increase service to handle increased ridership.
Jeanne Dorado recently returned to the Twin Cities after being at home with family during the pandemic. She is currently looking for housing and work in advertising that aligns with her values. She learned about TAP via a Facebook post by a Reformer reporter, and proceeded to sign up at a Metro Transit service center in downtown Minneapolis.
Dorado was surprised by how easy the process was, which took less than five minutes and involved filling out a form and showing her ID and Medical Assistance card to a Metro Transit customer service rep.
Despite the ease, the agency continues to struggle to sign up eligible Minnesotans. They advertise the program in multiple languages on the sides of buses and at light rail stations. They’ve also allowed people to sign up online, partnered with a slew of nonprofit organizations to distribute the cards, and set up tables at transit centers so eligible participants can sign up without having to venture to downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Some obstacles that prevent Metro Transit from growing the TAP program are likely beyond their control. Laurie Decoteau, a northeast Minneapolis resident who washes cars at dealerships, considers herself to be low-income and likely qualifies for state assistance.
But she hasn’t found the time to get vetted for assistance, which she needs before she can get TAP because Metro Transit can’t verify her income. Decoteau said applying seems like a risk of precious off time. “To go down there and then have to sit all day and get nowhere, when I could be doing other things” would be a big disappointment, she said.
Outside of the Twin Cities proper, the card offers less benefit. Enrollees riding Northstar can pay $3.25 to get to Big Lake from Minneapolis. And enrollees riding Southwest Transit’s Uber-like Prime service serving southeastern Carver County, Eden Prairie, Shakopee and the I-494 corridor can pay as little as $2.
But enrollees can’t get a discount on Transit Link, a dial-a-ride service that serves areas of the Twin Cities not served by any of the five major providers, which include huge swaths of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott, and Washington Counties. A Metropolitan Council spokesperson said they couldn’t afford to expand the TAP discount to it, owing to the already-high costs of running Transit Link.
Some riders, including many people experiencing homelessness, may also have a difficult time accessing the program because Metro Transit requires seeing IDs to prevent fraud, though they do accept the so-called Community Card — issued by organizations that work with homeless people — as ID and income verification.
Once riders get the card, they may struggle to reload it with money if they don’t have internet, phone access or a bank card, or live far from a retailer that can help them. North Minneapolis, which is home to two routes with the highest number of TAP rides, has four locations to reload them, three of which are located along West Broadway. Stations on the C Line rapid bus route don’t have machines where riders can reload their cards compared to their light rail station counterparts. At $86,000 a machine, they cost five times more than the fare machines currently installed at the stations.
Given the bureaucratic hoops to get people cheap rides, why not offer free transit? Yingling Fan, a University of Minnesota Humphrey School scholar who researches the impact of urban planning on health and social outcomes, thinks making transit free will improve people’s quality of life.
People would save money and broaden their connections to the community. “If you study the transportation needs of the elderly, [they are] very socially isolated. If they don’t have access to transportation, and they also [can’t] drive, paying for transportation [means] that they have less money for other essential things such as housing [and] energy,” Fan said.
Metro Transit recouped 23% of its operating expenses through fares in 2019, money it considers precious due to its ongoing funding woes.
Fan also found transit agencies across the nation employ fares as a mechanism to prevent homeless people from using it as shelter. She thinks it is possible to have fare-free public transit without the concerns transit agencies raise, so long as the government also tackles the shelter problem.
“You cannot blame public transportation or fare-free public transportation for this problem,” she said. “It’s actually the inadequacies in other systems in our country that led to this problem.”
For now, the program helps people like Dorado — who has never owned a car — take her daughter to school in south Minneapolis. She’s looking for housing within walking distance or a quick, cheap transit ride to her daughter’s school.
“Hopefully we find a place on Line 17,” Dorado said.
Update: An earlier version of this story misstated how a person can renew their TAP card. You can apply and renew here.
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