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Episode 94: UMN proposal looks to make transit more affordable

If passed, the Universal Transit Pass proposal would cut the current U-Pass cost by more than half. University representatives and students explain how this would change transportation on and off campus. 

*Correction: This podcast misstates the current policy for the Universal Transit Proposal. The Universal Transit pass cost would be charged automatically as a student transportation and safety fee.

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SAM MOSER: Hi everyone, my name is Sam Moser and you’re listening to “In The Know,” a podcast by the Minnesota Daily. Together, we’ll be exploring the University of Minnesota’s students and communities with each episode.

In this episode, we will learn about the Universal Transit Pass proposal and what it could offer students in terms of general accessibility, safety and equity when it comes to urban transportation. Deliberation for the proposal will begin sometime this summer, with an anticipated enactment by fall of 2022. 

The Daily sat down with Shashank Murali, the Infrastructure Committee Director within the Minnesota Student Association, who brought this proposal to the Board of Regents, as he explained the proposal’s significance.

SHASHANK MURALI: My predecessors, people who’ve been in my position in MSA long before I came here, have been working and trying to fight for accessible and affordable transportation to all students, regardless of their income, ability and any other factors that may come into play.

MOSER: According to Murali, if passed, the Universal Transit Pass would be an accessible version of the U-Pass that students are already familiar with. With the proposed transit pass, students could utilize metro transit, such as the light rail and city buses for a semesterly transportation and safety fee of $45 per semester. 

According to University Services Vice President Mike Berthelsen, this $45 semesterly fee would cut the current U-Pass price from $114 per semester. Despite being cheaper for students, the Universal Transit Pass would grant students unlimited access to metro transit, and increase accessibility compared to the U-Pass. 

MIKE BERTHELSEN: I think there’s a great deal of positive benefits that would come from this program. One is that for all the students who currently already buy into this program, they will have the same program for a lot less so the 14,000 students who already buy into this program will have a 74% reduction in their costs for that same pass.

MOSER: According to Murali, the proposal is set to come into effect for the upcoming fall semester pending the Board of Regents’ approval. Over the summer, the Board of Regents will debate the proposal, work out the finer details and potentially pass it through. 

Senior Emma Nelson graduates this upcoming May, but she wants future Gophers to benefit from the proposal.

EMMA NELSON: Yeah, I would say I’d be in support of this proposal because similar to kind of like I’ve been saying, I think it provides an opportunity for students to get out more, potentially be more cost-effective for themselves and might be a better opportunity for all students to do more things outside of campus life.

MOSER: The transit pass proposal is not free, and subject to opposition. According to the U of M Parking and Transportation Services, the $45 expense will be charged automatically as a student transportation fee, but Berthelsen said that students can opt out of the transit pass to avoid the fee if they choose.

BERTHELSEN: It is a cost. So, we’re not pretending it’s nothing. And we believe it’s a good value. But that’s up, you know, every person has their own value equation for whether that does for them. You know, I think even for students who would only ride a light rail or bus three times a month, that’s effectively still a good deal.

MOSER: According to Murali, University transit lacks in many ways for students because University transit doesn’t offer enough routes, stops and accessibility in general. Murali said the Universal Transit Pass would reduce some of those problems. 

MURALI: There are so many more accessible ways for students to get around campus, get around the Twin Cities, get home to the suburbs, whatever it may be. And I think that’s what the Universal Transit Pass is going to bring to students. 

MOSER: Murali’s argument doesn’t only consider those living on campus. He said that the proposal would be convenient for anyone that commutes to class in general. 

MURALI: For commuter students who have Metro bus stops in nearby suburbs, this would make their life a lot easier. I know that I’ve talked to a few students here on campus and in my class, and just people walking by and noticing that I’ve been working on this. And they’ve told me that this would save them a lot of money and save them a lot of time. It would save them money on gas, it would save them money on even potentially needing to buy new cars or repairs.

MOSER: Berthelsen sees this proposal as something that could unlock a new realm of exploration for students that have been limited by the current cost of the transit plan offered by the University.

BERTHELSEN: The Metro Transit has a really broad system that reaches lots and lots of places in the metro area. And I think that would allow students to find the location regardless of where that is to get to those spots and get what they need.

MOSER: Universal Transit Pass owners would still have access to suburban transit routes ranging across the greater Twin Cities area. The Universal Transit Pass does not add routes, but rather provides access to transit opportunities to every student.

BERTHELSEN: That gives students access to routes to go as far south as Lakeville and Apple Valley, as far west as Eden Prairie, as far North as Becker and as far as east as to Stillwater, and so that’s a very broad reach and a lot of different means for students to get around.

MOSER: According to Murali, the Universal Transit Proposal can improve equity for students by not only easing access to grocery stores far from campus, but by connecting students to culturally specific resources such as grocery stores that aren’t near the University.

MURALI: I know for a lot of international students and people of color, it’s very difficult to find groceries that pertain to their culture or where they’re from, I’m Indian. And it’s very difficult for me to find any Indian stores nearby to get access to food and groceries that I’m used to. So this pass greatly accomplishes that feat of allowing us to get to any grocery store and purchase any food that we want across the Twin Cities.

MOSER: Berthelsen elaborates on the importance of student access to grocery stores. The USDA defines a food desert as areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food. Using Dinkytown as an example, Berthelsen likens the University to a food desert. The University has two grocery stores close to campus. Target Express in Dinkytown has a smaller grocery section and Fresh Thyme in Prospect Park is two miles from Coffman Student Union. 

BERTHELSEN: We don’t have a large grocery store adjacent to campus. And that would be, I think, good for students to have that access in a pretty easy way. And there are several that are right off light rail. And with a bus system that expands opportunities even more.

MOSER: Elizabeth Ochoa is a fourth-year student who would’ve liked a more affordable version of the U-Pass. When asked how Ochoa would utilize a cheaper transit pass, she gave a quick response.

ELIZABETH OCHOA: Grocery stores! I can really only buy from Fresh Thyme. And sometimes Fresh Thyme doesn’t have the best prices. So, being able to just get around better, and have more options for things would have been better for me.

MOSER: Murali is confident that the proposal will bring about greater accessibility to diverse food sources, ranging from culturally specific grocery stores to more affordable grocery options.

MURALI: I know for a fact that, you know, this Universal Transit Pass will provide, you know, the same accessibility to people of color and students in need. And you know, and you know, at the end of the day, this helps overall, everybody on campus.

MOSER: According to Murali, the proposal can improve safety of students while encouraging student engagement.

MURALI: And I think that the Universal Transit Pass with that accessible transportation allows them to, you know, get back home safer, even when the campus bus system is not operating anymore, it still gives them a way to get back home safely. Without having to worry about their safety, without having to compromise their safety and well-being.

MOSER: According to Murali, students need access to all parts of a city in order to benefit from it as a resource.

MURALI: Yeah, so I think the biggest thing is city exploration and access to its resources. So a lot of us are confined to the bubble that we are in on campus, we go to class, we go to extracurricular activities, we work on a job on campus, we go back to our apartment and that’s sort of our daily life. And this is especially great for out-of state students and international students who may not feel like they’ve been sort of immersed into, you know, what the city has to offer.

MOSER: Selam Bushen, a University student from Stadium Village frequently utilizes the campus buses for class and city public transit for work. According to Bushen, she doesn’t explore the city quite as much as she would like to.

BUSHEN: For me, it’s just because like getting off campus can be really hard, because without a car, it’s just really hard to get places without the metro system. So just making that more accessible, I guess, would allow people to be able to go places outside of just campus.

MOSER: Nelson, too, wants opportunities to explore off-campus.

NELSON: So I grew up in a very rural area. And so cars were pretty much like the only way of transportation to get anywhere. And so that’s what I’m accustomed to. But if I had the availability to use public transportation more often, you know, I wouldn’t have to worry about parking. I would’ve just probably would have gone out more to, yeah, do any events.

MOSER: Murali believes that this student population deserves an opportunity like this. 

MURALI: We unlike a lot of other Big Ten schools, we live in the middle of like we live in a city. I think it’s very difficult to expect students to get around by foot everywhere they need to, especially for people who have jobs outside of campus. It’s very inaccessible to walk by foot or to pay every single time to use buses or the light rail or any other transportation method.

MOSER: For information about the proposal, there are resources available on the Parking Transportation Website, or students are encouraged to ask questions at [email protected]. On the website, listeners can find a list of frequently asked questions. Berthelsen also strongly encourages students to share their voices in the survey

BERTHELSEN: We are anxious to hear how students feel about it. And to make sure that we’re answering all their questions and giving them all the information they need to understand what it provides and what its opportunities are.

MOSER: Berthelsen recognizes the value of this potential resource for students to get the most out of their time at the University of Minnesota.

BERTHELSEN: We exist in a unique metropolitan area between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and deeply connected through light rail and other bus systems. So getting that full access to that to all students at a very reduced cost is a unique opportunity. And we look forward to that.

MOSER: As we come to a close, thank you to all listeners for tuning in. We’ll see you next time. I’m Sam Moser and this is In The Know.

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