Philadelphia is receiving another $578K to support its Zero Fare free SEPTA card program – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia has received a $578,340 grant from the William Penn Foundation to further support a pilot program equipping low-income residents with free SEPTA Key cards.

The Zero Fare free transportation pilot program began in August 2023, offering 25,000 low-income Philadelphians free, unlimited use SEPTA Key cards. Zero Fare will continue through at least June 2025, after which the city will evaluate the program’s impact on its participants and determine how or if the program will continue. The William Penn grant, announced by city officials Tuesday, will fund evaluation of the program, conducted in partnership with Georgetown University’s Better Government Lab and the Urban Institute.

“What we want to understand is outcomes — changes in employment, earnings, well-being, health, housing stability, financial stability,” said Nicola Mammes, Zero Fare Program Director.

While Zero Fare was inspired by transit benefits programs in other cities like Boston, Pittsburgh and Seattle, Mammes said that Philadelphia’s is the most expansive program of its kind in the country.

» READ MORE: New city program offers free SEPTA rides to low-income Philadelphians

“It’s a really big deal for Philadelphia. The city is really trying to invest in its people and its infrastructure,” she said.

Zero Fare was introduced by former Mayor Jim Kenney in the last year of his term, and has the support of Mayor Cherelle L. Parker.

“We are thankful to the William Penn Foundation for supporting the evaluation of the pilot,” Parker said in a statement.

“We already know paying for transportation is difficult for many Philadelphians and can limit their access to City resources such as health care and social services and job training programs that can ensure economic opportunity for all. We’re hoping Zero Fare can be a City benefit that helps more residents achieve a great quality of life,” she said.

‘A huge impact’

The majority of Zero Fare participants were chosen through a lottery system. There was no application process; participants who were between ages of 18 to 64 and receiving low-income benefits from the city within the year were automatically made eligible.

But Zero Fare’s selection process also accounted for the fact that not all low-income Philadelphians are eligible for city benefits. One in 10 of the program’s participants were chosen by partnering community organizations, so that low-income immigrants and refugees who are not eligible for benefits because of their documentation status could participate.

One of the community organizations involved with Zero Fare is Puentes de Salud, a South Philly nonprofit organization that works with Latinx immigrants in Philadelphia and Delaware County to promote health and wellness. In the short time Puentes families have had their cards, staff members said that the benefits have been profound.

“It’s a really big deal for Philadelphia.”

Nicola Mammes

“It’s been a life changer for them,” said Mariana Argüelles, health and wellness director at Puentes.

“Taking their kids to school [on] public transportation and getting to work. It’s easier to come to medical appointments, participating [in] community events. A lot of people spent hundreds of dollars a month on SEPTA transportation, and that’s money that now can go towards food or other really important needs. So it [has] a huge impact on people’s lives,” she said.

Orfelina Feliz Payne, the executive director of Puentes, said the impact on participants extends beyond just financial savings.

“Some of them shared, having day-care in South Philly but having a job opportunity that they could now go to in North Philadelphia because of the card option,” she said.

“Diabetes is a chronic issue in our community. We have maternal health [monitoring] that happens for our community members as well. And so those cards actually helped increase compliance as well. So folks who were typically missing appointments, [not picking up] medications or [attending] follow-up for maternal health care, they now have access to these cards, which they didn’t have before,” she said.

‘A great first step’

Payne and Argüelles were excited that Zero Fare was receiving more support because they see a need for the program to not only continue beyond 2025, but to grow.

They were given 415 cards to distribute to families in their network, and prioritized most of them for people who live far from Puentes and normally need multiple transportation methods to get there, people with chronic health conditions, and people who have to visit more often than others. But the need for free unlimited public transportation was much greater, they said.

When Puentes hosted a community distribution event for the rest of the cards, hundreds of people lined up hours before the event started. Many people left without one.

“Everyone at Puentes needs it,” Argüelles said.

“It was just a very clear indication of what we already know. The need is huge. And this is a great first step, but it’s not even covering the surface of what people really need.”


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