Dozens of San Diego high school students descended on Metropolitan Transit System headquarters Wednesday afternoon, December 10, pleading for transit officials' assistance in securing free or reduced-cost bus passes.
Following a rally in front of San Diego High School, youth organized by Mid-City CAN marched down Park Boulevard to MTS's offices near Petco Park, where they unsuccessfully requested a meeting with MTS board chairman Harry Mathis. Organizers said they'd failed in four previous attempts to secure a meeting date to discuss the issue of student transit passes.
Under a pilot program aimed at reducing truancy and dropout rates among at-risk youth, the San Diego Unified School Board in 2013 committed $150,000 toward purchasing transit passes to be issued for free to students at Crawford, Hoover, Lincoln, and San Diego High. That money was backed by $200,000 in funding allocated by the city council, and provided 875 students with passes at a cost of $36 per month.
This year, the district upped their investment in the program to $200,000, but absent any city contribution, only 550 passes, which are good through June 2015, were issued according to figures provided by Mid-City CAN's Emily Serafy Cox.
Student activists supporting expansion of the program have sought assistance from MTS, asking the agency to either contribute passes free of charge or offer a bulk purchase discount to the district, allowing available funds to be stretched further. Thus far, they say they've received no response from Mathis or others.
"It's important to offer every student an equal opportunity to pursue their education and career," says Hoover High attendee Thong Hoang. "But most low income students don't have access to transportation, and the bus or trolley is their only option."
Beyond attending school during regular hours, several students said the passes played vital roles in giving them access to sports and other extracurricular activities, to find and attend part-time jobs, or even to explore the city beyond the limits of walking distance.
"Having a pass has not only helped me in getting to school, it's opened other opportunities," says student Zeina Nemeh. "I volunteer at the Natural History Museum now, which is amazing. It's the best volunteer opportunity I've ever gotten."
Despite all county minors being allowed to purchase a basic monthly pass for $36, half the monthly adult rate of $72, some say even that cost can strain a family budget, especially in households with multiple children.
"Honestly, at one point my mom just couldn't pay for a bus pass any more," Nemeh continues. "Thirty-six dollars may not seem like a lot to some people, but for us it was. Thankfully I've got the free one, but if I didn't I'd be restricted pretty much to walking to and from school — that's it."
After making a second trip to the 10th-floor executive offices of MTS and being told they wouldn't be allowed to speak with Mathis, public relations specialist Mark Olson did appear to speak with the student group. While noncommittal on their demands for discounted or free passes and for a meeting with the board of directors, he did stress the existing lower fares charged to minors.
"We provide a 50 percent discount — it's a very good discount," said Olson. "If we were to discount that even further, it would certainly impact other services that we provide for the public. So, other riders would have to bear the brunt of discounting any more than we already do."
Senior transit users over age 60 and those with disabilities, however, currently receive a 75 percent discount off the base monthly fare, paying $18 for their passes.
Olson says the issue will continue to be studied through the conclusion of the pilot program's second year, though no timeline for consideration of potential MTS participation in future extensions has been identified.