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New Advocacy Group Seeks Free Bus Passes for Students

By Megan Burks

Mid-City CAN added a new advocacy team to its lineup, this one aimed at improving transportation options for City Heights residents.

The Improving Transportation in City Heights Momentum Team made its first impression last month when it called on the San Diego Community College District to support an initiative to offer free bus passes to youth and students citywide. In the coming year, the group plans to ask the San Diego Association of Governments to identify and allocate funding for the passes.

The effort comes after drastic cuts to city and school bus routes, increased fees and a newly approved transportation plan that many say underfunds public transit. Such actions significantly impact City Heights, where transit use is more than four times the national average, according to Mid-City CAN.

For students, the cuts can mean limited access to education.

“Over and over, one of the biggest needs we hear about is financial support for families that send students outside of City Heights for school,” said Nohelia Patel, a community organizer with Mid-City CAN.

Members of the Improving Transportation in City Heights Momentum Team call on the San Diego Community College District Board of Trustees to support their campaign for free city transit passes for youth and students. | Video Courtesy of Mid-City CAN

Many parents in the community send their kids elsewhere for school because their neighborhood schools underperform on state tests. Most relied on school buses to get their kids to classes in other neighborhoods—from City Heights to Pacific Beach, for instance—because they don’t own cars.

But this year, the San Diego Unified School District slashed many of those bus routes to deal with a dire budget shortfall. Parents were forced to make a decision: send their kids to failing schools or put their kids on city buses, which cost more than $400 a year for youth.

The cost is about the same for district bus service, where routes still exist. While there are fee waivers for children whose household income qualifies them for free and reduced lunch, the cost is still difficult to swallow for the working poor who don’t qualify. The district also cut financing options it previously offered.

The struggle is similar for community college students.

Amberley Middleton, who organizes International Rescue Committee programs at Crawford High School, said some of her graduates have had to take out high-interest loans from payday advance companies to pay for the $180 semester pass, which is subsidized by the community college district.

Dave Schumacher, principal planner with SANDAG, said there isn’t room for deeper discounts. TransNet, a half-cent sales tax that helps fund transportation projects and services, already subsidizes tickets for student, senior and disabled riders.

“There aren’t pots of money just sitting around,” Schumacher said. “Everything is allocated.”

Those allocations could be shifted, however. Schumacher said the momentum team would have to take its demand to the SANDAG Board of Directors, which has the authority to amend the TransNet ordinance with a two-thirds vote.

“The trouble then is, what are you not going to do?” Schumacher said. “What will you take money away from?”

Patel said the momentum team isn’t ready to take its demand to the board just yet. Instead, it’s first seeking support from area schools and public officials.

The community college district’s board of trustees agreed to write a letter of support. Patel said SDUSD Board of Education President Richard Barrera has expressed support in preliminary conversations.

She said the group is interested in exploring and analyzing different options, including a public-private funding model, and enlisting SANDAG’s help to do so.

“We’re interested in getting creative and thinking outside the box,” Patel said.


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