9 Investigates free rides on the taxpayers' dime



ORLANDO, Fla. - 9 Investigates discovered that your tax dollars are going to help regular SunRail riders get home.

The emergency ride program pays for riders to make their commute home -- with cab fare or cash for a rental car -- if they miss the train.

Channel 9’s Racquel Asa asked officials running the free program what safeguards are in place to prevent abuse.

But first she talked to SunRail commuter Christian Thompson, who is one of more than 2,000 passengers expected to board SunRail trains every week ay. He maintained the train ride will beat the drive along Interstate 4 from Lake Mary to Winter Park.

"My gas bill is right now is well over a $100 a month and the savings for me is going to be about $30 to $40 a month,” Thompson said.

And by giving up his car, Thompson can rent a car or take a taxi home up to four times a year and get reimbursed up to $150 each time in case he can't take SunRail home. The state will pay for the alternative commute if he can prove there was an emergency.

The program is called the "Emergency Ride Home." It’s run through Rethink Your Commute, an organization funded by the State Department of Transportation.

Here's how the program works: As long as SunRail is your primary mode of transportation, you can rent a car or take a taxi home if you're working unscheduled overtime or you have to leave work unexpectedly because you're sick or someone in your family is ill.

“You do have to register in advance and part of that is so that we have the information we need to confirm that you are a commuter using an alternative mode,” said Courtney Miller with ReThink Your Commute.

The program has been around for the last four years. Since then, Asa found the state has reimbursed $3,800 to people who used the service because they rely on vanpools or ride their bikes to work.

But the program’s critics said the state is going to shell out a lot more cash if people on SunRail realize the free ride home is available.

“They are basically trying to bribe people to get on this train,” said Grant Maloy with the Libertarian Party of Seminole County. “And it opens it up for corruption because you could very easily, if you're called late to work, you could easily call Enterprise, get a car delivered and rent a car for a day on the taxpayers’ dime.”

9 Investigates did the math: If all 2,100 SunRail passengers used the program four times a year with the ability to collect up to $150 each time, the state could be reimbursing riders up to $1.2 million a year.

 “We are not going to get in a situation where it is someone abusing the program,” said Miller.

ReThink told Asa that 1,900 people were registered in the program before SunRail started last week. But that number is expected to increase as more people use SunRail and experience the limitations of the current train schedules.

So far, no one has used the Emergency Ride Home program more than twice in a year. To further prevent abuse, ReThink said that a rider's employer will be contacted to verify an emergency before being reimbursed through the program.