A new year demands a new attempt to make transit free for all California students. We need a Universal Fare-Free Student Transit Pass program with benefits consistent with California priorities such as curbing climate change and air pollution by taking cars off the road, reducing VMT and traffic congestion, and enhancing transit ridership, student enrollment, attendance, academic performance, and better lifetime outcomes.
This program would be a clear win-win-win for students, schools and colleges, as well as transit operators—especially those operators who must now recover both the funding and the ridership that was lost during the pandemic.
Support Asm. Chris Holden's AB 610 by signing this letter to Gov. Newsom and your senator and assemblymember urging a YES vote to funding this groundbreaking statewide student transit pass program so every student from kindergarten to graduate school can ride the transit for free!
The post-pandemic period and its attendant ridership and revenue losses has caused significant worries that some transit agencies are facing a "fiscal cliff," though how severe it will be for each operator and how each operator got to this "cliff" may vary.
We agree that this is a very grave challenge to the near and long-term health of transit service in California and could place some transit agencies at serious risk. We urge the legislature and governor to take this very seriously and prepare to invest in solutions.
Looking at the bigger picture, our educational institutions have faced similar risks in the post-pandemic period. For example, our community college system statewide is experiencing a decline in student enrollment of more than 18 percent. For some colleges it is worse than others, and according to EdSource "that uncertainty has put the financial viability of some colleges at risk."
Transit agencies and community colleges (and some schools and universities) have separate but common challenges of similar origins:
- They each have a fiscal challenge that must be addressed to maintain their staffing, levels of operations, unionized labor, and institutional integrity, and
- They each have a challenge of declining participation levels—for transit agencies the challenge is ridership, for community colleges it is enrollment and attendance.
For each a substantial portion of their fiscal crisis is attributable to declines in ridership or enrollment. But assistance in meeting the fiscal challenge does not necessarily on its own remedy their ridership or enrollment challenge.
More money for seats that remain empty is a possible outcome; however it may be the worst outcome because ongoing declines in ridership or enrollment create a risk of declining public support for the mission of each institution. Any solution to the fiscal challenge of either must be shaped to ensure significant progress on the ridership and enrollment challenge as well.
There are collaborative strategies the legislature can approve that will not only support the fiscal recovery of both transit agencies and community colleges (and other educational institutions), but that will also enhance ridership, enrollment and attendance rates.
A Universal Student Transit Pass program in California is one such collaborative strategy that will support both fiscal recovery and recovery of participation in each institution. Investment in a program like this would directly fund transit operators and assist in their fiscal recovery, and also enhance their ridership base by bringing aboard thousands of students who otherwise would not ride.
The goal is to ensure levels of operations will be comparable to pre-pandemic operations—why would we pay transit agencies for a bus seat that is empty when we could easily fill it with a student?
And since student riders also enhance enrollment and attendance at community colleges, making additional fiscal resources available to these institutions, a dollar spent in a Universal Student Transit Pass Program is a "twofer"—benefitting both transit operators and educational institutions.
We urge the legislature to provide direct fiscal support to our transit operators using a need-based formula that asks each operator, as a condition of funding, to submit an auditable plan for ridership recovery. We also ask that the legislature provide transit operators with funding targeted to support a Universal Student Transit Pass program—a program guaranteed to enhance their ridership as well as college enrollment.
The recovery and restoration of both our transit systems and our educational institutions should be top priorities for the State of California.
Devoting a share of any "price gouging penalty on big oil"—as Gov. Newsom has called for—to these purposes in addition to some refund for drivers, makes sense. Drivers will be thankful for the efforts of the State of California to reduce the "soul-crushing" traffic they must muddle through.
Devoting a share of the cap and trade revenues, especially the revenues derived from refineries, makes good sense as well.
Support Asm. Chris Holden's AB 610 by signing this letter to Gov. Newsom and your senator and assemblymember urging them to say YES to funding this groundbreaking statewide fare-free student transit pass program!