Clipper START program provides discounts to low-income transit riders

Momoka Sasaki/Staff
Amid economic challenges presented to Bay Area transit services by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, low-income riders may be eligible to receive reduced fares. Applicants who are approved for the 18-month pilot Clipper START program will receive a personalized Clipper Card that will automatically apply discounts when used in appropriate transit agencies.

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Eligible low-income Bay Area transit riders may receive transit fare discounts through the Clipper START program, as implemented by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC.

Introduced in July, Clipper START is an 18-month pilot program that aims to alleviate financial pressure for low-income individuals by providing single-ride fare discounts of up to 50%, according to an MTC press release. Among other transit agencies offering discounts, BART is offering a 20% fare discount for qualifying riders.

“We’re hopeful it’ll increase access to BART and improve transportation affordability for eligible low-income residents across the Bay Area,” said BART spokesperson Chris Filippi in an email. “Expanding access to public transit is especially important given the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Transit riders who are between the ages of 19 and 64, live in the San Francisco Bay Area, earn a household income that is less than twice the federal poverty level and do not possess a Regional Transit Connection discount card are eligible to apply for the Clipper START program, according to the MTC website.

Once approved, applicants will receive a personalized Clipper Card, and discounts will be automatically applied whenever it is used in appropriate transit agencies, according to the press release.

The AC Transit Board of Directors voted to support this program, but has not yet implemented fare changes, according to AC Transit spokesperson Robert Lyles.

As 65% of AC Transit’s riders are considered low-income, its financial team is currently evaluating how to employ the Clipper START program while maintaining farebox revenue, according to Lyles.

“A fare discount would be beneficial to riders who continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic,” Lyles said in an email. “Nevertheless, months of declining ridership, and accordingly, farebox losses also present financial uncertainty to our transit district.”

As a result of a recent decrease in transit use by upper- and middle-class riders, transportation networks across the East Bay have undergone deficits that will cause “substantial service cuts” in the coming year, said Darrell Owens, East Bay Transit Riders Union volunteer.

The number of riders has decreased along with transit services, Owens added. Low-income transit riders are disproportionately hurt by these repercussions, given that they tend to live on the outskirts of the Bay Area and often cannot afford cars.

“We need to not only avert service cuts to make sure that (low-income riders) still have a transit system, but also to make sure that when people do eventually return to public transit, the transit system is still there,” Owens said.

Owens cited the United States’ fare-dependent transportation network as economically unstable compared to other international networks, which are heavily financed by commercial subsidies and land-leasing programs.

So long as the U.S. transit system does not find an alternative revenue source to fares, Owens added, it will struggle to reduce fare prices.

“But until that happens, at the very least, trying to make sure that low-income folks are not so cost-burdened on public transit … is something people have been talking about for a long time, and I’m glad to see it materializing,” Owens said.

Contact Olivia Moore at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @olivia_moore18 .