Activists: Loss of Palm Tran bus discount hurts illegal immigrants

— Palm Tran officials say they're selling fewer bus passes at a discount because, among other changes, they're not letting illegal immigrants buy them anymore.

With record ridership, the agency isn't hurting for ticket sales overall, despite the decrease in sales of discount tickets.

But some immigrant advocates say the rules leave some of the poorest residents of the county scrambling for ways to get to jobs or supermarkets.

"They are relying more and more on taxis, which cost a lot more, and they are deferring going to doctors' appointments and social service appointments," Sergio Palacio, executive director of the Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach, told The Palm Beach Post last week.

Palacio, whose group sells discount passes, and public transportation advocate Tomas Boiton urged Palm Beach County commissioners Tuesday to ask Palm Tran officials to eliminate the new regulation and allow illegal immigrants to purchase the low-cost bus passes.

Palm Tran's Transportation Disadvantaged Bus Program sells tone-day and monthly bus passes at steep discounts to low-income riders.

Losing eligibility means undocumented immigrants must spend $4 a day instead of a $1 to ride the bus, Boiton told the commission.

Regularly priced monthly bus passes sell for $60. Palm Tran sells monthly discounted tickets for $15 if the person's household income is between 101 and 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or about $16,700 annually per household resident; and for $10 if income is 100 percent or less of the federal poverty level, or about $11,100 annually.

The new requirements were put in place after county officials audited the discount program and found "a number of loose ends we think needed to be tightened up," Palm Tran Executive Director Chuck Cohen said. "I don't think we ever intended to provide discounts to undocumented workers. Should we or should we not? I think that's a policy issue."

The audit, which Cohen requested, found that community agencies selling discounted passes often were not obtaining photo identifications or verifying income levels of ticket purchasers. Bus pass holders were re-selling discounted tickets at inflated prices, the audit showed.

The county auditor made several recommendations, including tightening oversight of the community agencies and creating a database to document the sale of discounted passes to avoid selling more than one pass per person.

The auditor also recommended that Palm Tran require holders of discounted bus passes to prove they are in the United States legally. Cohen said that, after much discussion with his staff, and seeing that other county service programs also required beneficiaries to reside legally in the U.S., "we decided it made sense for us to do it as well."

After the auditor's recommendations were implemented July 1, the sale of the Disadvantaged monthly passed dropped 25 percent in a single month.

Sales of the passes have been lower every month this year compared to last year. April's sales of 6,818 passes was 7 percent fewer than the 7,298 tickets sold in April 2011. Sales in March were down 15 percent compared to March 2011, according to Palm Tran records.

Despite the drop in sales of the discounted tickets, Palm Tran still had record ridership in fiscal 2011 -- more than 11 million riders.

The change, however, has not gone over well at several community agencies that sell discounted passes. They've expressed concern that the legal status requirement affects undocumented families that rely on public transportation to go to work or the grocery store.

Palacio said he has seen how the new Palm Tran policy has affected his clients, many of them undocumented. In April, he sold bus passes to nine families, compared to 29 families the same month last year.

"It now prevents (undocumented clients) from buying bus passes and using public transportation at a price they can afford," Palacio said. "It's really affecting their quality of life."

West Palm Beach immigration attorney Aileen Josephs agreed the new requirement could affect undocumented workers, but she also said taxpayers may not want their money to fund transportation for people who are in the U.S. illegally.

Palm Tran receives about $30 million a year in county property tax and gas tax revenue.

"I feel for the immigrants, but I don't think they have a constitutional right for subsidized public transportation," Josephs said. "We have to understand many taxpayers don't want to feel they are giving their money to subsidize the transportation for undocumented (people)."

Cohen said some of those riders who used to benefit from the discounted bus passes may apply for discounts available for disabled passengers, but most will probably end up paying regular fares.

Palm Tran could make an additional $2 million a year if there were no discounts offered to passengers, Cohen said.

State money that finances the discounted pass program has been cut by at least 50 percent, he said.

"In

a lot of places, we are just providing services and the county is picking up the cost," Cohen said.

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