Disabled vets can now ride buses and LRT free, but officials worry few know about the benefit

Hiawatha Line
MinnPost photo by Raoul Benavides

Last week I rode the LRT from the Mall of America to the Metrodome and back without paying. I wanted to get caught, but no such luck.

On the trip downtown, the cars were packed like rush hour in Mumbai. Baseball fans were on their way to the Twins-White Sox game, so there was little likelihood that the transit cops were checking anybody. Later that night, I was swept up in a crowd of happy fans (the Twins won) that surged toward the Metrodome LRT platform after the game.

The cops trying to check tickets in the mayhem didn’t notice me. I suppose I could have yelled, “Check me! Check me!” But I’m just too shy for that and didn’t want to be considered a weirdo.

My hope, however, was to find out if there might be any problems using my Veterans Identification Card to get free rides on Metro Transit under the new benefit for disabled veterans that went into effect on July 1.

Affects some 50,000 Minnesota veterans
I am among some 50,000 Minnesota veterans who have been “rated” with a service-connected disability by the Veterans Administration. That’s a very specific classification that involves a fairly complicated application process, and its benefits include free (or almost free) medical care and “compensation” — which is the word the V.A. uses to describe a monthly disability pension.

And now there’s one more benefit, though officials with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs worry that many disabled veterans don’t know about it.

The measure granting free transit to disabled vets was attached to the transportation bill that made it through the Minnesota Legislature and was signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty earlier this year. It’s apparently unallotment-proof, since no one seems to know what it will cost.

The legislator who introduced the free-transit for vets measure was Rep. Jerry Newton, a DFLer from Coon Rapids. One of his staffers said Newton is out of the country on a long vacation — hence no comment. But it appears that Newton’s proposal was generally embraced by other lawmakers and was utterly uncontroversial. Partly as a result, the announcement of the program earlier this month attracted only brief news coverage.

A very specific benefit
One other reason: The benefit is very specific. The free transportation applies to “fixed-route” service, meaning transit buses with specific routes, plus the LRT and the new Northstar commuter rail line that will begin operating later this year between Big Lake, Minn., and downtown Minneapolis. That means you can’t get free rides on “Dial a Ride” or Metro Mobility.

The program involves the Metro Transit and the suburban transit providers, such as the Bee Line. And it also involves regular-route transit services in Duluth, St. Cloud, Rochester, Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Mankato. But it’s not available in other Minnesota communities.

Disabled veterans have to have a VIC card (Veterans Identification Card) that has been issued by the V.A. Medical Center — and the ID has to have the words “service connected” or the letters “SC” on it to indicate a rated disability status. You show the card to the driver on buses and to Transit Cops on trains. The free ride benefit also extends to a personal-care attendant who may be assisting the disabled veteran.

At the moment, there’s no way of tracking how many veterans are using the travel benefit. That may change.

Some talk of special cards
“There’s been talk of issuing specially coded ‘Go To’ cards as a way of tracking these rides,” said Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. He was referring to the swipe cards that many riders use to automatically deduct their fares from a set-up account.

The state’s Department of Veterans Affairs hopes interest in the benefit will also bring more veterans into its programs.

“There are many veterans who have never checked on the benefits to which they’re entitled, and we’re hoping this new program will encourage them to get enrolled,” said Anna Lewicki Long, a spokeswoman for the department.

“These aren’t benefits they’re being given,” said Long, a captain in the Minnesota Air National Guard. “These are benefits they earned.”

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Kassie Church on 07/17/2009 - 09:33 am.

    This is going to be unpopular, but this is crap. How unfair to all the other disabled Minnesotans who have to pay for their rides. While I believe the federal government should treat our returning vets with excellent medical care, I don’t think it is the State’s place to be putting one type of disabled person over another. What about disabled former policemen? Disabled former firefighters? Disabled former teachers? Are any of those jobs less noble or important than a vet?

  2. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 07/18/2009 - 06:02 am.

    Kassie’s choice of the word ‘crap’ to describe her reaction to this new policy seems stinky to me. I think the Legislature’s intent with new legislation was to pay honor to military veterans, not to be unfair to any other groups of disabled persons. I certainly hope I won’t have to put up with ‘crap’ from other transit riders if I choose to use my ‘service connected’ Veterans ID card when riding the bus or LRT because they think it unfair if I get a free ride and they or others do not.

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