Regional officials complain that TriMet plan siphons funds

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Students at Madison High School in Northeast Portland use TriMet to get to and from school.Who wouldn’t want a free TriMet pass, especially one good for no-cost bus and train rides seven days a week?

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch — or free transit ride. Either someone else is actually paying the bill or TriMet is forgoing the fare revenue it would otherwise collect.

Both are the case with the tentative extension of the Youth Pass program announced last week. The program provides free TriMet passes to all high school students in Portland Public Schools during the school year, and opinions about it are split in the region.

“This program is highly valued by our students. It ensures they can get to school, extracurricular activities, and to the jobs that some of them have,” says Jon Isaacs, the new policy advisory to PPS Superintendent Carole Smith.

But Washington County Chairman Andy Duyck is displeased that TriMet is subsidizing the program with payroll taxes collected outside the Portland school district. He says no one outside the district was consulted before the tentative extension was announced.

“So long as regionally collected payroll tax dollars are used, TriMet’s regional partner organizations ought to be included in the discussion about how future youth passes in this program are paid for,” Duyck says.

The youth passes cost $30 a month. The program is estimated to cost $3 million next school year. The tentative agreement calls for the cost to be distributed among TriMet, the school district and the city of Portland. The district and city each will contribute $1 million, while TriMet will forgo $1 million in fare revenue it would otherwise collect from students.

That’s less than TriMet is forgoing this year. The regional transit agency estimates it will not collect $1.75 million this year because of the program. The district is contributing $800,000 and the city is pitching in $200,000.

Despite the reduction in TriMet’s contribution, Duyck is still not pleased about the arrangement.

“TriMet deserves credit for attempting to address the issue of regional equity when it comes to paying for Youth Passes used by high school students in Portland Public Schools. That said, the arrangement is still bad precedent, relies on too many regional dollars to address a local issue for Portland and a more sustainable, regionally fair solution ought to be thought of beyond the next fiscal year,” Duyck says.

The agreement still must be approved by the Portland School Board, the TriMet board and the Portland City Council.

Trips beyond school

TriMet is subsidizing a level of service far beyond state requirements. Oregon law only requires school districts to provide transportation to high school students living more than a mile and a half from their schools, students living closer to school but who have unsafe routes, and some special-needs students.

This year, 12,500 Portland high schoolers received the passes. According to the school district, only around 8,000 students are covered by the state requirements.

And most of the rides taken by the students are not to and from their schools. The passes allow them to ride anywhere within TriMet’s service area at any time. An analysis conducted by TriMet found that between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2011, Portland students took a total of 637,282 trips to and from school. They took more than four times as many trips — almost 3 million — somewhere else.

TriMet has been providing reduced or free service to some or all high school students in the Portland district since the early 1990s. The program originally only covered students under the umbrella of state law and those from low-income families who qualified for free or reduced lunch programs. It was expanded in recent years to include all students in grades 9 to 12.

Officials with TriMet, the school district and the city offer multiple justifications for the program. Among other things, they say it helps assure that more students make it to school every day, increasing the graduation rate. They also note the cost to the district has been far less than the cost of providing traditional bus service to high school students. Decreasing the number of school buses and cars on the roads reduces pollution and congestion around the high schools at the beginning and end of each school day. And it encourages students to become frequent transit riders, they say.

“The program benefits the students and the community. That’s why our partners support the program and want it to continue,” says Isaacs, referring to TriMet and Portland.

History of subsidy

Oregon first required school districts to provide transportation for their students in 1991. Most districts contract for traditional yellow buses. Portland and Eugene have been granted waivers by the state Board of Education for high school students because they have well-developed public transit systems.

At first Portland only provided passes to students covered by state law and those from low-income families. The program began expanding to include all high school students after former Portland Mayor Tom Potter and former Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn met with more than 100 youths from throughout the region in May 2005. The meeting led to a youth summit in June 2006 that adopted a Bill of Rights for Children and Youth. It included a right to education, extracurricular activities and recreation.

The document was formally adopted by the city and county a short time later. The Multnomah Youth Commission, which is comprised of young people in the city and county, then adopted an action plan for ensuring the rights. It called for “free access to public transportation in order to support access to school, extracurricular activities and employment.”

A pilot program to provide free passes to all students in Jefferson, Franklin and Roosevelt high schools began in the 2008-09 school year. It was funded by the state Business Energy Tax Credit, which the Legislature passed to encourage energy conservation. It was expanded to all high school student in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, funded with $2.5 million from the state and $800,000 from the district each year. The $800,000 was roughly the same amount the district had previously spent providing passes to low-income students.

The state eliminated the BETC funding for a portion of the 2011-12 school year, leaving a $675,000 shortfall. It was made up by an additional $75,000 in school district funds, $225,000 from the city, and TriMet agreeing to

forgo $375,000 in lost revenue.

With all BETC funding eliminated for the current school year, TriMet considered dropping the Youth Pass program. Former Mayor Sam Adams pressured the agency to continue, however. He publicly threatened to charge TriMet $2 million for the bus stops on city sidewalks and use the money to buy the passes. TriMet relented and agreed to forgo $1.75 million in revenue. The school district contributed $950,000 and the city chipped in $200,000.

The public squabbling and increased subsidy from TriMet raised the ire of Duyck and other elected officials outside the Portland school district, however. They complained that employers in their areas were subsidizing a program that was not even offered to their students.

When she announced the tentative extension last week, PPS Superintendent Smith said it will be reviewed by the end of the year. According to the letter Smith sent Mayor Charlie Hales and TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, the review is intended to “identify changes to make it financially sustainable.”

In his response, McFarlane agreed.

“While this is an exceptional program, I have heard from many board members, community stakeholders and jurisdictional partners from across the region that the program is neither sustainable nor equitable, especially at a time when we have to cut service and raise fares to fill our budget gaps,” McFarlane wrote.

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