About 120 students from 18 colleges gathered at LA Trade Technical College last Friday for an LA County Student Transit Pass Advocacy Summit. The event was co-organized by Move LA and the South L.A. Transit Empowerment Zone (SLATE-Z) as a forum to support student organizing around a robust college student transit pass program. While many attendees were already active on this issue on their individual campuses, it was the first time that students gathered to dialogue as part of a countywide student movement. Schools in attendance included 14 community colleges, including all nine LA Community College District schools, and 4 four-year schools, including Cal State LA and UCLA.

The opening panel featured six students with varying experiences. Monique Gonzales from LA Trade Tech College and Luz Juan from East LA College have access to many transit lines but affordability remains a key barrier to access. On days that students do not have $1.75 for bus fare, many choose between skipping class or taking a chance as a fare jumper but receiving a fare evasion ticket, which carries a fine of $75 per incident. Right now, only student taking 12 or more units qualify for the monthly discounted pass, yet family commitments and financial realities prevent the majority of community college students from being able to enroll full-time. Some students bike to class when they don’t have bus fare, but that can take as much as 45 minutes each way. Students reported arriving exhausted and worried about getting home safely by bike after their evening class.

Chase Frederick from Southwest College and Lorena Aguilar from LA Mission College explained that students at their campuses do not have steady access to reliable transit options. They have a limited number of lines that service their schools, and the last scheduled bus leaves before their last evening class is finished. As a result, students who rely on public transit sometimes opt to not register for a later class due to worries about commuting home.

Alejandro Lomeli from Long Beach City College (LBCC) echoed these sentiments, explaining that the majority of LBCC students are low-income students or non-traditional students with family responsibilities. Yet as community college students, LBCC students do not have access to a transit pass program like Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) students. CSULB partners with Long Beach Transit (LB Transit) to provide a Universal Pass TAP Card to all enrolled students, faculty, and staff. The card allows free and unlimited access to all LB Transit buses.

Jesse Randel from Santa Monica College (SMC) rounded up the panel by discussing SMC’s successful transit pass program featuring Big Blue Bus, which has allowed him to continue his education by making commuting from Koreatown to Santa Monica affordable. SMC currently charges $8 per semester to students, which provides students with unlimited Big Blue Bus rides.

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(l-r): Heddy Nam, Director of South LA Transit Empowerment Zone (SLATE-Z); Lorena Aguilar, ASO Vice President, LA Mission College; Monique Gonzales, Student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College; Jesse Randel, ASU President, Santa Monica College; Alejandro Lomeli, Long Beach City College and Region VIII Senator, Student Senate for CA Community Colleges (SSCCC); Chase Frederick, Comissioner of Student Affairs and Discipline, LA Southwest College; Luz Juan, Student at East LA Community College. Photo Credit: David Ysais, Los Angeles Trade Technical College

In her remarks, Stephanie Wiggins, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of LA Metro, said she understood the challenges that students face and that the way Metro’s current college student pass program worked was “broken.” She announced Metro’s proposal for a Universal Pass program to make riding Metro more affordable and accessible:

  • Metro will work with interested college administrations to implement the program – making students potentially eligible for even deeper discounts if schools and some programs choose to subsidize the program or students opt to assess a larger student activities fee.
  • Participating colleges will distribute stickers with an embedded chip for students to place on their ID, eliminating the need for monthly paper applications, which is how the program is currently administered.
  • Students will be charged $0.75 per boarding, up to $43 or 57 boardings per month. Students who use less than 57 rides per month will be refunded for unused boardings at the end of the semester, and any boardings above 57 will be free of charge.
  • Part-time students taking more than 8 units will be eligible for the program, lowering the unit requirement down from the current 12 unit threshold.

The Metro Board of Directors will consider this proposal at their next meeting on May 26th. Wiggins and Devon Deming, Metro’s Director of Commute Services, fielded questions and comments from an engaged audience. While many students did not feel the proposal was a perfect program, they expressed appreciation for Metro’s efforts to create this pilot program proposal and suggested changes they would like to see included.

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Stephanie Wiggins, Deputy CEO of LA Metro, addresses student leadership from around LA County. Photo credit: David Ysais, Los Angeles Trade Technical College

Many students stated that even the discount of $43 per month is too big of a financial burden for most college students to bear, and funding for even deeper discounts was a major point of discussion among participants. On that issue, Nicholas Liedtke, Legislative Director for Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) talked about the potential for subsidizing student transit passes through the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF). Assemblymember Holden authored a bill (AB 2222) to continuously allocate $50 million annually from the GGRF towards student passes for K-12 and college students across CA. Liedtke said the bill enjoys bipartisan support and was voted unanimously out of the Assembly Transportation Committee on April 11th.The bill is on suspense (as with all bills that cost more than $150,000), and Lietdke asked students to engage state lawmakers to support this proposal.

During the rest of the day’s dialogue, student leaders affirmed their commitment to long-term engagement and working with Metro, lawmakers, and transit agencies to ensure pilot programs are implemented and improved upon in coming years.

For more on this event, see Streetsblog’s coverage here: http://la.streetsblog.org/2016/05/13/metro-deputy-ceo-wiggins-previews-proposed-student-pass-program-upgrade/