Alameda County to pilot free student bus passes

The Alameda County Transportation Commission voted unanimously Thursday¬†to approve a pilot program to offer free bus passes for selected middle schools and high schools in each of the county’s four geographic areas.

Commission members voted after a large number of students from Skyline High School in Oakland, Oakland Unity High School and other student groups told them that getting to school can strain their family’s budget because daily roundtrips to school by bus can cost $40 a month or more.

One student said she sometimes has to choose between spending money on food or on taking the bus.

The Rev. Krista Fregoso of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oakland said free bus passes “are important in removing every barrier between youths and getting an education.”

Mary Lim-Lampe, an organizer for Genesis, an Oakland social justice group, said supporters of free bus passes for youths had been concerned about the proposal the Transportation Commission was considering today because it didn’t seem to guarantee that a free bus program would be tested.

Lim-Lampe said many youths, parents and other community members supported the passage of Measure BB, a transportation sales tax approved by Alameda County voters last November, because they believed it included the creation of a free youth bus pass and would have felt betrayed if it wasn’t included.

But Lim-Lampe said after the meeting that she felt reassured after commission members voted to test free passes in all areas of the county:

“This is what we came here for.”

The commission approved awarding a $2 million contract to Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates of San Francisco to implement the student transit program.

Tess Lengyel, the transportation commission’s deputy director, said the consulting firm will be paid $600,000 over four years and $1.4 million will be spent on free bus passes and crossing guards.

The bus passes can be used for after-school activities in addition for traveling to and from school.

The pilot program will begin next fall and run for three years. It then will be evaluated for effectiveness to see if it should be implemented throughout Alameda County in middle and high schools.

Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb, one of the commission’s members, said he thinks free passes should also be available to elementary school students and he and other members asked the commission’s staff to look at that option in the future.

But Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, the commission’s chair, warned:

“This is a fiscally-constrained program and if you include money for elementary school students you will take away from some middle school and high school students.”

Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, another commission member, said the idea behind the free bus program is good.

Capitelli said:

“The idea is to make it free for everyone and change people’s behavior by making it easy to get to school.”