Students using TriMet in Portland Public Schools (PPS) may have no idea how close they came to losing their free ride to school this year. In April of 2018, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler unveiled his budget for the coming fiscal year wherein he eliminated the city’s contribution toward the TriMet Youth Pass. This is a free bus pass that thousands of East Multnomah County high school students rely on for public transportation to and from school. The mayor’s office said, at the time, that the cut to the Youth Pass was made to allot more money for such things as police and housing.
However, after later negotiations among regional officials, it was announced in early June that all high school students in PPS would again receive passes for the coming school year. These passes will also be available to low-income students and students of color in the David Douglas and Parkrose school districts, as reported by The Portland Tribune. The latter districts have yellow school buses available to all students.
This frequently contested funding issue has seen debate through three successive mayoral administrations, after the state stopped funding the program in 2011. Up until that time, the state paid for the transit passes through the federal Business Energy Tax Credit program, which gives a federal tax break to the city.
What is the actual cost for the city of Portland? For the 2018-2019 school year, PPS will pay two-thirds of the approximately $2.9 million cost of providing passes to all high school students, while TriMet will contribute $1 million. Additionally, TriMet will contribute about $100,000 toward the cost of passes for David Douglas and Parkrose students. Tia York, a TriMet spokeswoman, told OregonLive that the agency is required to spend “at least one percent” of state transportation revenue on high school students, although it’s not immediately clear how much money the agency will receive. York also added that TriMet already offers discounted fares to students ages 7-17, regardless of their district.
Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office released the following statement regarding the importance of the Youth Pass: “This agreement means that for the coming year these students will have greater access to jobs, training opportunities, classes at Portland Community or Mt. Hood Community colleges, libraries and other destinations that support their education.” Unlike other school districts, Portland Public Schools does not provide comprehensive yellow school bus service. The Student Pass program is a partnership between TriMet, the school district and the City of Portland. Student Passes are valid on TriMet from the start of the school year through the end of June. A Tribune article of June 11 quotes Trimet General Manager Doug Kelsey as saying, “We’re happy to partner with the City of Portland as well as the Portland Public, David Douglas and Parkrose districts. This partnership will give students whose financial situation puts them at a disadvantage to their peers access to transit, and access to opportunity, for the upcoming school year.”
According to student Logan Kary (11), the free bus passes are crucial for high school students. When asked whether she thinks that PPS is obligated to provide bus passes, she said, “Yes. If you don’t have anyone to drive you or can’t afford transportation, you can’t really get anywhere and no one is going to walk 30 blocks to get somewhere.” It has even been debated that the bus passes should be provided not just during the school year, but through the summer as well. In response to that, Kary said, “It would be helpful to have the bus pass through the summer if you have summer classes, or a job.”
A group will be formed by the City of Portland to discuss long-term funding strategies for providing transit passes to low-income students in PPS, as the funding for bus passes in the 2018-2019 school year is not permanent. These could include using funding from a new employee payroll tax established by the 2017 Oregon Legislature as part of its transportation funding package. The work group may also consider seeking state financial support for student transit programs, and identifying other funding opportunities at the regional or state levels.