For five months in 2014, Lincoln High School student Alexis Guzman didn’t have to walk the three miles from his parents’ National City apartment to school. More importantly, he didn’t have to walk the three miles home, past the afternoon hangouts of gangs and drug-addled transients.
During that five-month-period, Guzman rode a Metropolitan Transit System bus. His fares were free. The then-high school junior was one of 1000 students at Crawford, Hoover, Lincoln, and San Diego high schools to receive a free transit pass as part of the Youth Bus Opportunity Program, proposed by Mid-City Community Action Network and paid for by the City of San Diego and San Diego Unified School District.
The goal of the program was to improve school attendance, help provide access to extracurricular activities and after-school jobs, as well as increase overall use of public transit while reducing vehicle emissions.
For Guzman, it was more about safety.
“I liked taking the bus,” Guzman says. “It was faster, and I didn’t have to leave so early or walk home in the dark. And, I felt safer. I could stay after school for MECHA or Izcalli meetings and not have to walk home late in the evening. I would also take the bus to go to school soccer games, the mall, or sometimes Balboa Park if I needed to get out of the house.”
“The walk was scary at times. I had to walk through areas where there are drug addicts and gangs. There was one time that they started yelling at me. I got scared and started running as fast as I could. I don’t walk that way anymore....
“I needed the pass more for safety, but other kids have different problems. A lot of people don’t have money to pay $36 a month to take the bus. Metropolitan Transit System should help those kids out, so they don’t have to walk through scary parts of town or have to stay home and not get out to do the things they like to do at school or other places.”
The pilot program has ended and hopes of a region-wide policy for youth bus passes have been dashed. The City of San Diego has pulled its funding of the project and, despite pleas from the Mid-City Community Action Network, Metropolitan Transportation System refuses to allocate funds to help pay for youth passes, leaving the school district to pick up the slack.
In fact, according to representatives from the mid-city group as well as state transportation specialists, Metropolitan Transit System has openly rejected using newly acquired state Cap and Trade funds to pay for thousands of bus passes to school-aged children from low-income families in San Diego. In recent years, a new state fund, the Low Carbon Transit Operations Fund (meant to increase public transit and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions) has been allocated to agencies such as Metropolitan Transit System to be used on items such youth bus-pass programs.
But Metropolitan Transit System staff say it’s too risky to depend on annual appropriations from the state.
According to a spokesperson for Metropolitan Transit System, the annual cap-and-trade fund isn’t dependable and is not enough to pay for the program.
“The funding can be rescinded at any time by the legislature and is subject to annual appropriation,” wrote operations manager Sharon Cooney in an email to a Mid-City Community Action Network staffer in January 2015. “…[Metropolitan Transit System], as an agency, tends to look at state funding as either one-time or as high risk. It doesn’t mean the Board can’t decide to spend it on new, on-going expenses anyway, it’s just not something staff would unilaterally recommend.”
In later emails to the Reader, Cooney said there wasn’t enough evidence to show that the program accomplished the goals it had set out to accomplish.
“The intent of the program was to see if free transit passes increased attendance and thereby increased state funding to the school district as a result of a higher average daily attendance. The results have not been fully analyzed by the school district, but early indications are that the availability of free passes did not improve the attendance of students in the program. [Metropolitan Transit System] will continue to administer the program free of charge if the school district wants to continue to purchase the passes.”
In addition, Cooney says free bus passes for everyone under the age of 18 would not only impact revenues that the transit agency depends on but would require additional resources to keep up with increased ridership.
“It depends on what a program looks like…. Youth passes provide [the agency] $8.4 million (FY14) in annual revenue currently. Therefore, that amount of revenue or cost cutting would have to be realized to offset that lost revenue. Additionally, providing free rides for this entire population would likely increase ridership to the point where additional resources such as bus and light rail vehicles would need to be purchased, deployed, operated, and maintained.”
Adds Cooney, “Metropolitan Transit System has been told by the State that it will receive $1.2 million from this source of funds in [fiscal year] 2015. As noted above, this amount is significantly less than what it would cost to supply all youth with free rides. The Low Carbon Transit Operations program under state law only receives a small fixed percentage of all cap and trade funding. It is unlikely that it will ever reach funding levels that would cover the full cost of free youth passes in [the agency’s] jurisdiction.”
In a follow-up email, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transit System says that riders under the age of 19 can purchase bus passes for half of the full price. Any additional reduction would require public hearings.
Program experts, however, say the pilot program could be expanded with board approval.
According to staff from the Mid-City Community Action Network, the program was making a big difference. The number of students riding the bus alone spiked twofold from 25 percent to 54 percent. More students participated in after-school tutoring programs and extracurricular activities. And, as was the case with Lincoln High student Guzman, students felt safer.
“Both the data and the anecdotal evidence shows that this program is making a real difference in the lives of young people and their families,” says Abdul Mohamed, program manager for the Mid-City Community Action Network.
“Young women were reporting fewer incidents of being victims of sexual harassment and assault while going to and from school. This statistic alone is powerful. We have heard about what a great resource the pass is for students and families, and students who have big dreams and deserve every chance we can give them to succeed.”
Ryan Wiggins advocates for improving transit operations through the use of state cap-and-trade revenues. Wiggins, the cap-and-trade campaign manager for advocacy group TransForm, says the cap-and-trade appropriations will only increase in coming years.
“The [Low Carbon Transit Operations fund] is locked in from now through 2020,” Wiggins says. “The risk to this pot of funding is fairly low…. If revenues come in at projected levels, the actual number will likely be $100 million or more. That means Metropolitan Transit System will receive at least twice as much funding and possibly four or more times as much funding. Metropolitan Transit System is being unreasonably conservative by saying the transit operations pot will be a one-year shot in the arm, especially since it would take an enormous political lift to take away funding for transit now and the fact that both the governor and the legislature are showing they are committed to maintaining the deal that was passed into law as part of the budget last year. After all, Metropolitan Transit System will get at least twice as much funding this coming year.”
As to the strain free bus passes could potentially have on the transit agency, Mohamed of the Mid-City Community Action Network says it would all be worth it.
“If ridership increases because of the free youth bus pass, we count that as a good thing especially if we want to grow the next generation of transit riders. This will help [Metropolitan Transit System] to increase the ridership that they have been looking for and really need. We are confident that there is a funding solution to the concerns that [the agency] has raised. If other cities in California can do it, so can we.”
Sean Elo, director of policy for the Mid-City Community Action Network, adds: “[T]he burden for maintaining and growing this critical program cannot and should not lie solely on the shoulders of our school district. Given the widespread economic benefit of the program, it is critical for other governmental bodies, especially Metropolitan Transit System, to begin to pull their weight.”