Activists campaign for free bus passes for students

By Ye Tian - July 15, 2011

Oakland activist group Genesis is campaigning for the creation of a free bus pass for students in Alameda County. During a town hall meeting the group organized at the First Congregational Church on Thursday evening, hundreds of supporters showed up and chanted “Get on the bus!” to a rolling video camera, urging elected officials to invest in the bus pass program.

The video message will be made into a DVD and sent to the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC), which supervises the funding for AC Transit, said the event organizers, adding that they have also gathered signatures from a number of state legislators representing the East Bay cities, including Assemblymember Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland), to back their appeal. “This is a tremendous signal of support and speaks to the vital importance of the program,” said Michelle Jordan, co-chair of the transit equity committee of Genesis.

Without a school bus service, tens of thousands of Oakland students have to depend on AC Transit to commute between schools and their homes. Although a $15 monthly pass is currently available for students under the age of 18, the bus fare is still considered an economic burden for many low-income families.

“We serve some of the most under-served students, ” said Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan at the meeting. “I was at a school not long ago and the kids said to me, ‘We can’t afford the bus fare, we can’t get to school.’” Jordan assured the crowd that she has confirmed support of the bus pass program from every superintendent of the school districts within the county.

The youth pass program, proposed by the county’s Office of Education, would allow students from third to twelfth grades to ride AC Transit for free all year long. Michelle Jordan of Genesis said the group is working “extensively with members of the county’s transportation commission and will continue to see their support.”

“But without a good transportation system, there’s no value to this pass,” she said, adding that Genesis is also urging the restoration of the service cuts that have been made to the public bus service. AC Transit, which serves 200,000 riders on a daily basis, cut its service by 15 percent last year due to its fiscal difficulties, eliminating one out of every six buses on the roads. “Having someplace to go that’s important to your quality of life and not being able to get there—it’s so debilitating,” said Mahasin Abdul-Salaam, another Genesis committee chairperson.

Genesis leaders estimate that the annual cost of the youth bus pass program would be about $13 million, a price that’s “fairly inexpensive given all the benefits,” according to a statement on the group’s website.

But not everyone agrees that funding the free bus passes is an easy fiscal decision to make. During one portion of the town hall meeting, a number of public officials who serve on the county’s transportation commission were asked to sign a pledge to help secure the funding through Measure B, which generates about $100 million for the county each year to improve its transportation facilities. While most attending officials, applauded by the crowd, signed the pledge without hesitation, Berkeley City  Councilmember Kriss Worthington said “No” on the stage and was not given a chance to explain why.

“I don’t believe $13 million will come from this pool of money,” Worthington said after the meeting. “If we are going to make this happen, it’s going to come from at least three or probably five sources of funding.”

Worthington said he has been advocating the bus pass program within the county’s transportation commission “since the beginning” and is definitely not opposed to it. But he is not willing to commit to “something that isn’t remotely conceivable,” he added.

Worthington believes it may take several years for the bus pass program to succeed. “It doesn’t happen quickly,” he said.

According to Chris Gray, chief of staff for the transportation commission’s vice chair, Scott Haggerty, a draft of the new expenditure plan for the Measure B fund will be released in early 2012. The final plan, he said, will be put on a countywide ballot in either June or November next year, when it will need two thirds of the vote to pass.

The youth bus pass isn’t the only program that depends on the limited resources of the county, Gray said, adding that Measure B funds will also be used to extend BART’s service, repair freeways and maintain the operation of other bus systems as well. “It’s a fine art to balance all the needs,” he said.

Earlier this year, AC Transit’s board of directors nixed a proposal to offer discount bus passes to Oakland high school students over the age of 18, who otherwise pay the adult fare of $2 per ride, citing the agency’s tight financial situation. That program would have cost an estimated $625,000 to provide discounted passes to approximately 800 students.

Interview requests to AC Transit had not been returned as of press time.

This story originally appeared in Oakland North on July 15, 2011 and is available here:

http://oaklandnorth.net/2011/07/15/activists-campaign-for-free-bus-passes-for-students/