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AC Transit considers ramping up youth pass price

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 04/27/2011 - 12:48pm

The financially struggling AC Transit offers one of the best public transit bargains in America for riders 18 and younger: $15 per month for a youth pass good for unlimited local bus rides.

The deal may not last much longer, though. Bus system administrators have proposed increasing the pass price to $20 per month in August as the first step toward tripling the charge to $45 per month over eight years.

The proposal -- to be aired in a fare increase public hearing 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday in Oakland -- has sparked debate over the district's competing goals. District officials say they want to offer a break to students, but also face pressure to act more frugally in hard financial times that forced the district to cut service twice last year.

AC Transit administrators and at least one board member agreed the low pass price is a part of the district's financial troubles.

"The youth pass is hugely underpriced," said Greg Harper, an AC Transit board member from Emeryville. "We can't afford not to raise it."

Youth and social justice groups said the district should resist big increases that would burden low-income students, possibly hurt school attendance, and decrease the incentive for teens to use transit instead of cars.

"It would be a hardship," said Nikita Mitchell, an Oakland Technical High School senior who serves as the student representative on the Oakland Unified School Board. "If AC Transit is having a hard time affording to pay their drivers and other expenses, what do they think raising the charge for youth passes will do to students?"

Also opposing pass price increases are Urban Habitat and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, two nonprofits that advocate for low-income people.

About 11,600 riders a month purchase the youth pass in the far-flung bus system that serves 13 cities and surrounding areas in western Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

In a report for the public hearing, AC Transit administrators wrote that increasing the youth pass price to $20 a month and boosting the regular adult bus fare from $2 to $2.10 per ride in August should be part of a strategy to close a projected $21 million deficit the district expects by June 2012.

The youth pass is just one reason for the deficit, officials said.

AC Transit loses $4 million annually because the youth pass price is far below a proposed new district standard to set discount passes at 36 times the price of a single-day cash fare, said Beverly Greene, a district acting assistant general manager.

Because the cash bus fare for youths is now $1 per ride, the youth pass would be $36 under that standard. Raising the price so much all at once would be too much, officials said, so the district is recommending four increases over eight years to $45 a month.

The youth pass used to cost $27 a month, but the AC Transit board lowered it to the current $15 in 2002. Adults pay $80 per month for the adult discount pass.

Chris Peeples, an AC Transit board member, said the board slashed the youth pass price because it wanted to encourage youngsters to develop a public transit habit, thereby reducing pollution and congestion.

The district had hoped that money losses from the price cut would be offset by increased sales, but that didn't materialize, officials said.

Peeples said he is reluctant to raise the pass price because he views an increase as breaching a political pledge the board made.

When AC Transit successfully sought voter approval in 2008 to double a district parcel tax from $48 to $96 per year, the district said it would use the extra money to avert an increase in the youth and senior discount passes, Peeples said.

"Our credibility with voters is important," he said.

As AC Transit considers raising the pass price, a group of transit and social justice advocates are trying to persuade Alameda County's Transportation Commission to fund a free bus pass for youths throughout Alameda County.

The funding for the free pass would come from a possible 2012 ballot measure to extend and possibly increase the half-cent sales tax for transportation in Alameda County.

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Read the Capricious Commuter at Follow him at