U Pass idea has successful precedents elsewhere

by Lynne Kozarek

With opponents already declaring the U Pass dead on arrival, its advocates might once again look to the success of similar programs at other schools to revive the proposal.
The plan mirrors programs already in place at a number of schools around the country, but unlike at the University, other schools have turned to student referenda or voluntary fees to enact their transit passes. At the University, the funding request was put before the Student Services Fees Committee with little public fanfare.
The committee, in a preliminary report issued Feb. 18, denied Parking and Transportation Services the money it requested for the U Pass. The full committee, in its initial deliberations Saturday, endorsed the earlier report. While University students seem generally unenthusiastic about the idea, students at universities around the country have embraced similar systems.
Transit administrators modeled the U Pass program after similar programs already in use at other schools, including the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison, Colorado-Boulder and Washington-Seattle.
Each program differs somewhat from the others, but they all share the same general idea: giving students a pass for unlimited use of local buses to reduce campus parking and traffic problems.
Wisconsin-Madison’s UW Pass has been a polarizing issue, said Stacey Hafner, a bus pass intern and volunteer with the student government at Wisconsin-Madison.
“You either love it or you hate it,” Hafner said. “There are students who use it all the time and there are others who are upset because they have to pay the $20 and they never use it.”
Wisconsin-Madison’s student government held a bus-pass referendum last fall; students voted to try the UW Pass for one year. The proposal is up for another student referendum in March, and Transportation Services at Wisconsin-Madison is hoping it will pass again.
“Student ridership is up 50 percent since last year,” said Lorie Kay, director of Transportation Services at Wisconsin-Madison. “We had 685,000 student riders in the (program’s) first semester.”
Kay said student reaction to the UW Pass has been generally positive.
Hafner said the UW Pass was initiated because the student government and Wisconsin-Madison’s school’s transportation administrators wanted to connect the university and the surrounding community.
The U Pass at Washington-Seattle has been in place since 1991 and is an optional service with a $27 fee. Washington-Seattle’s U Pass includes an unlimited-ride bus pass, free carpool parking on campus and secured bicycle parking. If students choose to use the U Pass, the fee is added to their tuition bills.
Because the fee is optional, no general referendum was held at Washington-Seattle.
Michael Williams, manager of Transportation Systems at Washington-Seattle, said that the number of students who drive alone to campus has dropped since 1991 from 25 percent to 15 percent.
“Transit usage has gone up from 21 percent to 34 percent,” Williams said, “and traffic to campus has gone down by 16 percent.”
Williams said that Washington-Seattle has lost 1,000 parking spaces since 1991 and hasn’t had to replace them, a fact he attributed to the increase in transit usage.
Colorado-Boulder has also had its system in place since 1991.
Brian Mohr, alternative transportation coordinator at Colorado-Boulder, said the creation of the CU Bus Pass was a cooperative effort between students, administrators and city officials.
Because it entails a mandatory fee, Colorado-Boulder, like Wisconsin-Madison, held a student referendum about the bus pass.
Mohr said that in 1991, students made 300,000 bus trips per year; since the introduction of the CU Bus Pass, the number has increased to 1.6 million.
Originally, the CU Bus Pass added a $10 per semester mandatory student fee, but the cost has increased with inflation. Today, students pay $14.50 per semester for the service.
“There are secondary benefits to this program,” Mohr said. “It reduces traffic, and it frees up parking spaces, if you want to think like that.”
Cari Hatcher, a public relations representative for the University’s transit office, said a referendum might be considered here. However, she said administrators would prefer to get the money to fund U Pass from the fees committee.
Transit officials hope students will rally to support the U Pass proposal at fees committee hearings before March 1, when the committee makes its final decision.
“We’re hoping that, through the public hearings, people will voice their support for this,” Hatcher said. “If it doesn’t pass, then we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
The fees committee cited inadequate student involvement in U Pass planning for its preliminary rejection of the proposal.