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COTA: Free Fares to End This Summer, Shift to Cashless Payment Planned

The free fare policy that was implemented this spring by the Central Ohio Transit Authority in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely come to an end this summer, although exactly how the transition back to full fares will work is not yet clear.

One thing that is known is that cash payment will not be returning – when fare collection resumes, riders will need to pay either via COTA’s mobile app, or on cards that can be loaded with funds and then used to pay the fare by tapping on the fare box (both options were rolled out last fall as part of the COTA Connector program). 

Also under consideration by the transit agency is a plan to offer discounted fares to low-income riders.

“While we are still temporarily operating as a no fare service with rear door boarding, to ensure social distancing between customers and operators, you will begin to see changes this summer as we evolve to meet the needs of a community coming together again, in-person,” said Joanna Pinkerton, COTA President and CEO, in an email to riders sent out on June 17.

The email went on to say that COTA will “soon shift all customers to a cashless payment…to ensure everyone has the same safe interactions with our service as they have come to expect from any modern company,” and that “we are working closely with our non-profit and human services partners to ensure everyone who needs access to mobility can continue to rely on us and have equitable access to safe mobility as well.”

When asked for more details on both the return to fare collection and the possibility of a new program geared toward “equitable access” to the bus network, COTA spokesperson Jeff Pullin provided the following statement;

Even before we suspended fares…COTA was engaging community and business leaders to meet the mobility needs of all Central Ohio residents, including those who have difficulty affording transit fares. Those conversations have intensified as we have begun to explore an eventual return to fares. At this point, we have not set a timetable for when to return to fares or determined a discounted fare structure, but we are discussing these issues with our partners and stakeholders every day.

Pinkerton elaborated somewhat on the plans during a June 24 meeting of the COTA Board of Trustees. She said that the testimony of a group of high school students (at a previous board meeting) questioning why Downtown workers received free bus passes while they didn’t “really resonated with us” and that COTA is “committed to finding a solution” to the problem.

Part of that solution may involve the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards distributed by the Department of Job and Family Services, she said. The cards, which can be loaded with food stamps or cash benefits and used like a debit or credit card at grocery stores, have the potential to be used to access transit as well, Pinkerton said.

“We will have many more discussions over the next weeks with the community and board [about the idea]”, she added.

For the latest information on COTA policies and service changes, see www.cota.com.

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Brent Warren

Brent Warren is a staff reporter for Columbus Underground covering urban development, transportation, city planning, neighborhoods, and other related topics. He grew up in Grandview Heights and has a Master’s Degree in City and Regional Planning from OSU.

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