Chattanooga's public transportation system started charging bus fares again this week after allowing riders free boardings since April 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic outfall.
Lisa Maragnano, director of CARTA, told the Times Free Press on Monday that the decision was made to protect bus drivers and riders after a rash of health and behavioral issues on the buses, which are still operating with a limited occupancy due to COVID-19.
"So the people who needed to ride, who needed to go to work or go to the doctor's or whatever they needed to do, they couldn't get on the vehicles because folks were just riding to ride, to get out of the weather or, you know, have air conditioning, that kind of thing," Maragnano explained.
"So that was causing issues. There were some sanitary issues that were causing problems on the vehicles, and this has been going on for quite some time now," she said.
Since January, Maragnano said, there have been more than 120 reported incidents on buses, including riders refusing to get off the bus at the end of the line, feces and urine on buses and behavioral episodes.
"We would have to bring the bus back in and have it cleaned, obviously, and that takes that vehicle out of service, and then you have to get somebody else to swap that vehicle out. So that was a really big issue," she said of sanitation concerns. "And a lot of it was some behavioral issues. The driver would ask them to get off the bus because they've already had their trip around. They will refuse to get off, and then they would become belligerent, so we end up having to call CPD [the Chattanooga Police Department] and try to deal with that."
"And there's only so much a bus driver can do in that situation."
CARTA during COVID
Passengers 2 and older are still required to wear masks on CARTA buses and property, by federal law
The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority board voted to re-implement fares — $1.50 per one-way trip, without any discounts or a pass — after hearing complaints from riders who were unable to board because of capacity restrictions and drivers who are already stressed, facing these situations.
Some residents are concerned about the impact on access for residents experiencing homelessness or other vulnerable populations.
"It is going to be, and it is, really rough on them," said Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons, a librarian at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and co-creator of Help Right Here, a nonprofit that helps residents experiencing homelessness.
Fitzsimmons said she's already received a call from an artist she helps through her nonprofit work who was unable to afford fare on Monday.
"She's one of the people that is being housed temporarily at the Chatt Inn on 23rd Street. And she makes money by selling artwork on the Walnut Street Bridge. So if she can't get from East 23rd Street to Walnut Street to the bridge, you know, that's where she consistently makes money," Fitzsimmons said. "And she can't carry all that art stuff. She can't carry her paints and her easel and her canvases. You know, she has to have transportation to make any money, and she needs to be able to."
Moreover, Fitzsimmons is concerned that residents who don't live near 11th Street or downtown — where many city resources and nonprofits are — won't have access to food, health care or other necessities.
"So Chattanooga can't supply enough affordable housing for people, so the least they could do is continue to allow them to travel to work, or to downtown," she said. "And if they're in camps around Hamilton County and they need to get to Homeless Health Care or the Community Kitchen for food, you know, and they don't have bus fare, then they can't eat or get medical help."
Joda Thongnopnua, chief policy officer for the city, told the Times Free Press on Monday that the mayor's office is working with CARTA to find a short-term solution to support those in need of free or discounted fare.
"We understand that there's going to be some challenges associated with transitioning back to fares, and so we are currently working with CARTA to create a need-based system where people can apply for CARTA passes at certain income levels," Thongnopnua said, noting that the program will probably take a couple of weeks to implement.
"And then, over the coming weeks and months ahead, it is our intention to find a sustainable path to fare-free."
As CARTA ceases the pandemic fee waiver, the city is considering how to eliminate fares permanently.
Before his election in April, Mayor Tim Kelly promised during his campaign to make CARTA fare-free early in his term.
"Chattanooga will create a plan to eliminate fares for main bus routes and provide free transportation to city residents by 2022 by increasing non-fare revenue, which will rise with increased ridership," Kelly said in a list of platforms.
While the logistics are still unknown, Thongnopnua said Monday that the plan is still to meet that goal.
"I think the challenge that we are trying to address, the circle we're trying to square here, is that we don't want to transition to fare-free in an unsustainable way and then have to go back to fares, or re-institute fare boxes, which would be a significant cost," Thongnopnua said. "So, we just need to make sure that whatever system that we're putting in place to go fare-free is sustainable over the long term.
"It isn't a switch we're just going to be able to flip."
Maragnano said she believes free fare is possible but that it's going to take more planning to protect drivers and riders.
"It won't happen without all the problems. I think there will still be some of these issues, but I think that we need some time to be able to put something in place that can help us with this, help the drivers with this and help our other customers with this, because it's not right," Maragnano said, noting that finding a safe place for people to be in the city is the key issue. "It's not fair to anybody, you know, including the folks who need a place to go other than a bus.
"This is a much bigger issue than just our vehicles."
Fitzsimmons said it's also imperative that officials find a solution for the immediate term.
"I think public transportation is, I mean, I don't want to say that it's a right, but it kind of is," she said. "For these people that can't afford anything else — and there are a lot of them who are trying to work — give them a little leg up."
"I hope that they will reconsider the fares."
More information on CARTA's bus fares and reduced-frequency fall schedule can be found at gocarta.org.