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Low-income students may get free, cheaper bus rides

By Jeffrey Obser, Daily Planet staff
Friday November 16, 2001

Free AC Transit bus passes for students from low-income families may become a reality next year, but only if the Bay Area’s regional transit board votes next month to subsidize a program that will benefit Alameda and Contra Costa counties. 

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which represents all nine Bay Area counties, will decide Dec. 19 whether to make bus ridership free for the approximately 30,000 students who participate in free or reduced-cost lunch programs in the two counties. 

Other students would see their bus-pass costs reduced from $27 to $8 per month. 

“The pilot is proposed just in these two counties, but it has implications for all nine,” said Lara Bice, legislative aide to Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. 

But, she said, she could not predict the MTC’s vote. 

The Berkeley School Board unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday endorsing the pilot program, but only after the board’s vice president, Shirley Issel, introduced two additional clauses stating that funds should not come from AC Transits’ operating budget. 

“We want the transit authority to stay solvent and maintain service,” Issel said Thursday. The MTC, she said, has a plan to fund the program with other revenue sources “so that service won’t be affected.” 

Carson joined forces with State Assemblymember Dion Aroner and Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia to propose the pilot program, the only one of its kind currently up for consideration as part of the MTC’s $81.4 billion December appropriation vote. 

The $12 million cost, Bice said, represents “Less than one hair off their whole head.” 

If approved, she said, students would begin riding free next fall.  

Board director John Selawsky, who is crafting an overall transportation policy for the school district, said the program could make bus travel free for as many as 2,000 students in Berkeley alone and add millions of dollars to the combined budgets of the East Bay’s school districts. . 

“If even a small percentage of those students are missing school because of transportation costs, it adds up over that wide a region,” he said. “How that impacts Berkeley, I haven’t got an analysis.” 

Half-price BART tickets have already been available to Berkeley High School students and teachers for several months, Selawsky said. 

“It’s not very well publicized yet,” he said. 

For now, however, the cheapest option for students at any school to ride AC Transit buses is a monthly pass that costs $27 up front – too steep for many families. 

“It has been shown that students from families of low and moderate incomes who rely on public transit often do not have adequate money for fares at certain periods each month, and thus miss school entirely because of lack of ability to pay bus fare," the board’s resolution noted. 

At the board meeting, student director Sarena Chandler expressed concern at language elsewhere in the resolution that called for a “$95 per year bus pass” for those students not receiving free or reduced lunch. 

“They’re easy to lose,” she said, and “students can profit from them.”  

Bice said that this and other concerns had been taken into consideration. Monthly credit-card billing to parents was one possibility for those students who still had to pay, she said, and rather than getting transferable bus passes, students in the free or reduced lunch program would line up on the first day of school and receive stickers on their regular identification cards. 

In order to reduce the stigma that some might attach to publicly receiving the need-based transit privilege, Bice said, those students “would have their names written in black ink, others in blue ink, something that only the person at the (registration) station would know.” 

Selawsky said he plans to unveil a district-wide transit policy in “about three months or so,” calling for increased use of mass transit, safer dropoff points for the schools where necessary, and “reduced or free BART passes for staff.” 

Parking, he said, is another big concern – especially what to do when construction ends at Berkeley High School and its tennis courts revert from parking back to their original purpose. 

In the bigger picture, the MTC’s vote comes at a time when the region’s public-transit agencies are under growing legal pressure to increase ridership. Though the Bay Area’s population has grown about 30 percent in the last five years, said Selawsky, AC Transit ridership is down and BART ridership has only held steady. 

“A judge in a recent court case ruled (the transit agencies) haven’t made a sincere attempt to increase ridership and they are under a court decree right now to increase it, no “ifs, ands, or buts,” Selawsky said. 

“Specifically with student bus passes, this has been a need for years and years,” Selawsky said. “It seems kind of obvious that kids should have access to transportation to and from school at either very minimal cost or no cost, because that should not be a deterrent to getting to school.”