INDIANAPOLIS — In Indianapolis public transportation provided by IndyGo is a critical resource for hundreds of veterans.
"Transportation is one of the most significant barriers for the veterans we serve. It is vital in providing them the means to seek and maintain meaningful employment," said Brian Copes.
Copes is a US Army and Indiana National Guard veteran as well as President and CEO of Helping Veterans And Families of Indiana. HVAF is the largest provider of services to homeless veterans in the state. They help veterans with a number of things including food, housing, jobs, legal services, and transportation.
"Prior to IndyGo implementing their veterans ride free program my agency spent about $70,000 a year in bus passes to provide ridership to veterans in need," Copes said.
IndyGo's Veterans Ride Free program has been around since 2018. But IndyGo says if Senate Bill 141 is passed into law it would require the transit agency to raise and account for more money, which could force IndyGo to discontinue the free ride program and start charging veterans to ride the bus.
IndyGo spokesperson Lesley Gordon says in the month of November 2020 alone, Indygo provided veterans with 31,000 free trips. That's something she says IndyGo would no longer be able to afford under Senate Bill 141.
"That program is about a million dollars in fares that we give back. So, if our funding is jeopardized programs like this are in jeopardy. We have to count everything and that makes every program, every discount, every fare at risk," Gordon said.
In a January interview with WRTV's Cameron Ridle, the state senator behind the bill, Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, said the proposed restraint on IndyGo is his legislative avenue to prevent the bus rapid transit Blue Line from being built and taking away a lane of traffic on Washington Street.
"I'm here to tell you I do represent the area when you talk about the Blue Line and folks do not support The Blue Line in terms of one lane in each direction," Freeman said.
In a statement Wednesday to WRTV, Freeman said, "my legislation simply aims to hold IndyGo accountable for the terms they agreed to when the 2016 referendum on the Red Line passed. IndyGo had agreed to raise 10% of their funding independently and 25% from rider fares. This has not happened, and now Marion County taxpayers are left to foot the bill, as there is no law ensuring IndyGo will ever have to raise the money promised.
"When looking at IndyGo's 2021 budget [indygo.net], and the budget numbers [in.gov] supplied by the State Budget Agency [in.gov], you can see that they are receiving $10 million more in 2021 than expected. Claiming my legislation would lead to budget cuts, including eliminating free rides for veterans, is disingenuous.
"IndyGo saying that this program would be cut solely because of my legislation looks to be a retaliatory measure that only harms the people they are serving."
Politics aside, Copes at HVAF says cutting rides for veterans does not help the people he is working to serve. "It will have a significant negative impact on those veterans who are seeking employment in the city," said Copes.