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Free Rides

Free Rides

Thanks to Ted Bergh, thousands of poor people in Cincinnati can get to their jobs, the doctor or anywhere else in the region—free. Bergh—a 1991 theology graduate who spends his days as chief financial officer of Metro, the bus company that services Greater Cincinnati—was the brains behind an independent charitable foundation that not only found a way for people to ride the buses for free but is also garnering attention from around the country.

“When energy costs were high, we had to raise our fares, and we were concerned that low-income riders would have difficulty getting essential services,” says Bergh. “So, we started this charitable foundation.”

Known as Everybody Rides Metro, the foundation raises money to pay for bus ride tokens that social service agencies distribute to people in need. The project started in 2006 and by the end of 2008 the foundation raised $1.25 million, including a $700,000 matching grant from the Federal Transportation Authority. After a one-year pilot program, the effort became fully operational in the spring of 2008 and provided 120,000 free bus rides in six months. The foundation’s goal is to give 70,000 free rides a month by 2009.

To try to make sure the free rides go to people who really need them, the foundation relies on the expertise of social service agencies that work with the poor.

“We don’t want to be the ones to decide who gets served,” says Bergh. “There are a lot of agencies out there that already do that. We partner with the agencies and they decide who gets help and they hand out the tokens.” That allows the foundation to concentrate on raising funds to keep the program thriving.

The program is the first of its kind in the country and the American Public Transit Association was so impressed that it awarded the foundation its national 2008 Innovation Award, meaning it felt the program represented the greatest innovation in public transportation in America during the year.

Those who receive free bus rides also praise the program. “We’re hearing some pretty good stories from people who say this really helped them get a job or keep a job or get to health care,” says Bergh. “We want to keep expanding the program in Cincinnati. And, we’re having discussions with several other cities interested in starting a similar program.”

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