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Students pass Go, collect free transportation

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By Desiree Perez

(Lawrence Gonzales)

By Desiree Perez

For one year, students of Riverside Community College District will be given a free ride – on the bus, at least.

Riverside Transit Agency has launched the Go Pass program in cooperation with RCCD, the County of Riverside and the cities of Riverside, Moreno Valley, Corona, Norco and Perris.

During the one-year pilot program, students with an RCCD College Card will receive free transportation on any of the agency’s fixed and commuter routes.

“Starting Aug. 21 this year, until Aug. next year, students can ride the bus for free,” said Edward Bush, vice president of student services at RCC. “The timing of it works out perfectly,” he said, referring to the state of gas prices.

Of the many objectives of Go Pass, cutting transportation costs is in the forefront. “One (goal) is to eliminate that cost for students,” Bush said. “Hopefully, (this program will) open up greater access to the college for students who might not be able to afford transportation.”

Brad Weaver, marketing manager at Riverside Transit Agency, also noted the benefits of Go Pass in light of recent gas prices.

“From a gas point of view, students can save money,” Weaver said. “Students will be able to save money on gas as well as have a convenient way to get to and from school.”

By providing relief from gas prices, Bush believes Go Pass will turn more students on to public transportation and, in turn, furthering their education.

“Maybe by this program being free, riding the bus will become an option for those who would have never have considered it,” Bush said. “Maybe someone who rides the bus will see this as an incentive to get into education.”

By offering free public transportation, the Go Pass program grants students “freedom to get to campus without having (gas prices) as a parameter or constraint,” Bush said.

Bush worries that such constraints may limit or even hinder students’ academic aspirations. Transportation costs can have an “impact on the number of units students take,” Bush said. By eliminating that concern, he believes many students might be able to take more units per semester.

RCC student Antoine Reed spoke from experience about the need for affordable transportation. “I think it’s a good program because a lot of people like me can’t afford a car and can’t afford a bus pass.”

Although Reed is already looking into different financial aid opportunities, he believes that the added help Go Pass provides him will go a long way.

“It sure alleviates a lot of trouble,” Reed said.

Many students can empathize with the financial difficulties Reed faces.

“I definitely think cost is a big factor,” said Jorge Flores, RCCD student. “Whenever you say ‘Free,’ you’re going to get people’s attention.”

In addition to being a student, Flores is also an active member of the Western Riverside Counties Chapter of Transportation-NOW.

The organization includes transit agency staff, civic leaders and members of the public such as Flores.

According to Flores, the group performs analyses of agency bus routes, identifies where improvements can be made and discusses solutions for funding projects and programs such as Go Pass.

Flores believes any student who takes advantage of Go Pass will benefit economically. With the money they save on travel, students can “better afford other necessities such as food and books,” Flores said.

The average transportation cost for a full-time student per semester is $1,400, said Flores. The average cost for a full-time student at RCC who lives about 10 miles away is $200 per month, only including travel between school and home, he said.

“All of our students are commuters,” Flores said. “Not one student lives on campus.” Lack of on-campus housing is one reason that Flores believes this program is so vital to community college students.

“Of course this program is going to make it easier on students such as myself who rely on public transportation,” Flores said. Go Pass would save students who already ride the bus the $43 fee for a monthly bus pass.

Advocates of Go Pass are also hoping to reach out to students with cars.

“The message we want to send out to students with cars who don’t usually bus it is: ‘Try it!'” Flores said.

In addition to saving money, Flores believes that Go Pass will introduce public transportation into the collegiate lifestyle.

If successful, Flores hopes that Go Pass will “integrate (public transportation) into the culture of future students.”

Weaver also makes mention of the benefits public transportation could have on student culture.

“The students will benefit greatly from this program that will not only provide free rides, but will also enhance the college experience,” Weaver said. He added that in many college towns, most students utilize public transportation to get to classes.

Besides a more metropolitan college experience, supporters of Go Pass also emphasize the environmentally beneficial aspects of public transportation.

“Just eliminating the number of cars on the road would be huge,” Bush said.

Flores elaborated on the environmental impact Go Pass could make.

“The buses are powered by natural gas,” Flores said. “Each bus has the potential to remove 40 cars off the street.”

The overall degree to which Go Pass could cut emissions is not yet known. Such figures will be determined during the course of the one-year pilot. “That is going to be the type of data we hope to give to legislators,” Flores said.

Should Go Pass prove to be a success, its backer will push for legislation that would allow colleges to fund similar programs more easily.

“The problem all along has been finding funding,” Flores said. “It kept looking like it wasn’t going to happen until Mayor (Ronald) Loveridge contacted (RTA).”

It was Loveridge who first introduced the idea of using assembly bill 2766 monies to fund Go Pass.

Because of its potential to reduce the amount of cars on the road, Go Pass is eligible to receive funds which are set aside by the bill with the purpose of limiting vehicle emissions.

As of now, Riverside County and the cities involved are all contributing funds collected through the bill.

Although Go Pass was implemented in August 2008, talks between RCCD and the transit agency concerning discounted fares for students go as far back as October 2006.

These talks were sparked in the wake of the UC Riverside U-Pass program which provided free bus rides to UCR students.

While similar to U-Pass, Go Pass is an independent program.

If deemed successful in its pilot year, Go Pass has the potential to become a permanent fixture. However, the main concern will again be funding.

Bush hopes that Go Pass’ success could help enact “any law that gives colleges the flexibility to utilize funding… (for) creative programs like these.” However, he is cautious of funding solutions that would simply pass the cost on to students.

The pilot program will run until Aug. 29, 2009. At that time, the success of the program will be evaluated to determine whether or not it will become permanent.

It is difficult to determine how well the program will perform. So far, students seem to be embracing the idea.

“I was so excited when I found out about it,” said Riverside City College student Janay Scott. “I can go to work and shop, and go to the movies on the same card. I love it!”

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