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A line of people wait to get on a CARTA bus on route 4 Wednesday, February 27, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The number of riders on the bus varies throughout the day.

The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority is planning to give veterans free rides beginning in 2020.

The agency's board voted Thursday to test a program that would allow veterans with proper identification to ride public transportation for free.

"I've been trying to look at doing this for probably well over a year now to try and figure out a way to say 'thank you' to those who are serving and who have served our country," CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano said, proposing the idea at the monthly board meeting. "'I'm just excited, you know, because it's doable for them. We always get calls from folks in the city and county asking for help with veterans. It's one less thing that they'll have to worry about. And veterans that are homeless can maybe use it to help themselves to a better situation."

According to Maragnano, the plan was inspired by similar programs, including one in Franklin, Tennessee, but details on how to best identify veterans held up the implementation.

"I was working, like I said, to figure this out and I was making it more convoluted than it has to be," Maragnano said of her original plan to have veterans bring an official military form to receive a special ID from CARTA. "First of all, that [form] has way too much personal information on it that I don't want CARTA to be responsible for, and that just adds steps that we don't need to add."

(Read more: Never had to take a CARTA bus? Try it at least once)

(Read more: Coverage vs. ridership: CARTA seeks best route for growth)

"Not to mention [pursuing the special ID] may be a barrier for some riders," Vice Chairwoman Tamara Steward added.

Maragnano is proposing allowing free rides across all CARTA transportation, including buses and the Care-A-Van program, to veterans with proper photo IDs — such as veterans IDs, VA IDs and specially marked veterans driver's licenses — and training drivers on how to check for proper identification rather than implementing any special new CARTA identification.

The board debated the practicality of the ID system, with some members concerned about family members of veterans who have such IDs taking advantage of the program and potential fraud with faded ID photos, but ultimately voted in favor of the program.

Asked about the potential impact on revenue, Maragnano said the model program in Franklin suggests there will be little downside.

"There will probably be a little bit [of a decline], but I don't see it being a huge issue," Maragnano said. "Franklin hasn't seen that kind of decrease. They've had an increase in ridership, but not much change in revenue."

Maragnano said they are looking at implementing the trial program in January 2020, but that will depend on how quickly they are able to set up the necessary fare collection and identification processes.

"Our goal is Jan. 2, but that may adjust based on operational necessity," Maragnano said.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.

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