August 4, 2008

Jefferson, Franklin Students Will Get Free Transit Passes

By Tara Ballenger, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Aug. 4--When classes resume this fall, students from two Portland high schools can cross monthly transit passes off their back-to-school shopping lists.

The pilot program will give all students at Franklin and Jefferson high schools free passes in September. If the program succeeds, it will move to other high schools in the district in January, said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch.

The passes will have no restrictions, so students can use them to get around town as well as for school.

"Youth deserve to have access to extracurricular activities and school programs that can help them succeed," said Sarah Meyerowitz, a member of the Multnomah Youth Commission. "We decided that transportation was a major barrier to that."

Meyerowitz graduated from Wilson High School in May and headed the effort to get the free youth pass approved. The commission -- 42 Portland-area students ages 13 to 21 -- developed the idea in January and made it happen in meetings and negotiations with TriMet and Portland Public Schools.

"The hardest thing was trying to work with TriMet to make it a workable situation for them," Meyerowitz said. "They are the ones who are going to take a hit if anything went wrong, so they were asking the tough questions."

Portland Public Schools spends $700,000 to provide free passes to about 2,700 high school students who get free and reduced lunches and to those who live more than a mile from the school they attend. All other students can get a discounted monthly TriMet pass for $24, compared with the adult rate of $76.

Thanks to the city's public transportation network, the school district isn't required by the Oregon Department of Education to provide buses for high school students.

Last year, Jefferson gave 180 free transit passes to eligible students. Next year's enrollment is expected to be 700 students. Franklin gave 220 free passes to students last year, and is expected to enroll 1,100 students next year.

That's 1,400 more students eligible for the free pass during the pilot program, said Sarah Carlin Ames, spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools.

TriMet will collect ridership data in a survey paid for by the school district to gauge how many more students ride the bus. The results will help TriMet figure out if the extra riders create the need for expansion, either adding more routes or more buses on the routes.

TriMet also needs the ridership data to qualify for a business energy tax credit, which will reimburse the agency for the cost of each student fare.

Lane County has a similar program, where students in grades 6-12 can ride the bus for free through the tax credit program.

Sheree Bull, a Multnomah Youth commissioner, will be a senior at Jefferson High this fall. Though she receives a free pass because of how far she lives from school, she said she knows many students who will benefit from the program.

"It can be really difficult to afford a bus pass when costs for everything else are skyrocketing," she said.

Selling TriMet on the idea was a tough process, but worth it.

"You have to start slow with something as big as this," Bull said. "But I want to show that we (students) do more than just sit on the couch and watch videos. If we want change, we have to be a part of the change."


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