Who would dispute the merit of an annual, discount bus pass for senior citizens, students and Berkeley residents valid within the city limits of Berkeley? No one. But the scramble to take credit for the program almost left the proposed pass spinning in bureaucratic limbo.
At last week’s City Council meeting, Mayor Shirley Dean and her moderate allies, Polly Armstrong and Betty Olds, sought to create a sub-committee to push the proposed pass through the council as quickly as possible. Requesting that Polly Armstrong and herself convene a subcommittee to put the pass into working order, the mayor was stymied by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who asked that a more “politically balanced” committee be created, or that the matter be referred to the Transportation Commission, which Worthington said, already had a sub-committee working on the details of such a pass.
When the dust settled, a more politically balanced committee of Dean, Armstrong, and Linda Maio – Maio is a member of the liberal/progressive council faction – was convened to determine possible funding sources for such a pass. Armstrong said she believes the new sub-committee will meet next month.
Miriam Hawley, member of the Board of Directors for AC Transit and candidate for City Council, said creating such a pass is “a non-trivial task with many questions to be answered.”
“Who would get it and how would it be paid for?” she asked. “Would it cover every Berkeley citizen, or every person getting on the bus in Berkeley? How would you pay for it, and how would you keep track of people moving in and out of Berkeley who get such a pass?”
Such passes would be extremely valuable, she said, noting that a black market for such passes could be created unless strict regulations were imposed to track who is authorized to use them and who isn’t.
But the question of how to pay for such passes looms largest.
In Boulder, Colo., there was a proposal to create a transit pass within certain portions of that city that would be funded by property tax, Hawley said. In Santa Clara County, an employer-supported pass, called an “ecopass,” is in use.
“Employers pay transit authorities a certain amount per employee, and this gives them the ability to commute on public transportation instead of driving,” Hawley said. “Of course, only a few employees ever do this.”
Another example, and closer to home, is the “Class Pass” at UC Berkeley.
Armstrong worked with the university and AC Transit to create affordable, alternative transportation for all university students for a flat fee of $18 a semester. Armstrong said over two-thirds of the students opted in and now ride the bus anywhere, anytime, including to destinations in San Francisco.
But such a plan may not work for the more broadly-based pass that is being considered, Hawley said.
“Students don’t travel at peak hours,” she said, “but a wide ranging pass, or an employee-based pass would mean more people traveling during the peak. This could necessitate more buses, more drivers, and more costs, and again the question becomes how to fund it,” Hawley added.
Initially the pass may be offered to city employees, Armstrong said.
“Offering the program to city employees may be the best first step we can take because we know their salaries, and can offer it to them immediately, but I’d like to extend it to all Berkeley citizens,” Armstrong said. “I am open to any ideas.”
With traffic problems in Berkeley worsening, Armstrong said the need is growing.
“I want to do anything I can to encourage less use of cars. It needs to be done without penalizing drivers, whether this means building more housing where transportation hubs are, or funding more public shuttles and transportation,” she said. “We need good transit alternatives to the single occupant car.”