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City: TriMet pass program for high schoolers is dead

Jefferson High School students ride the 4 to schoolDespite a scramble to save it, Oregon’s innovative YouthPass program is going away, its loudest supporter conceded Thursday.

"We’re done," said Todd Diskin of the City of Portland.

Change will come fast. With Portland Public Schools out for the summer, thousands of students may have already ridden their last free TriMet bus to school, Diskin said.

The passes weren’t free to state taxpayers. Providing nine months of unlimited transportation to every PPS high schooler cost taxpayers $3.5 million a year, or about the same as three hours of one school day. Eighty percent of PPS students used the passes once a week or more.

State funding won’t expire until December 2011, but the district may suspend the program immediately to prevent confusion and to coordinate with TriMet’s scheduling procedures.

"It’s hard to take something away once you’ve given it to them for the school year," explained Diskin, who staffs the Multnomah Youth Commission‘s sustainability committee.

Diskin added that his own preference would be that the pass continue through December.

State law will still require the school district to offer transportation – probably TriMet passes – to about 3,000 students who attend their neighborhood school, live at least 1.5 miles away and qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Eugene and Salem students, who had also been using the state’s business energy tax credit to offer similar programs, will be equally affected. Other districts, including East Portland’s David Douglas district and suburban districts, have never offered the universal pass program.

Todd DiskinHow many Portland families are aware that their free TriMet passes are about to disappear, and why?

"We’ll know once school starts," said Diskin, 45, who works in the office of Mayor Sam Adams. "If they call me and say ‘What’s happening to our YouthPass?’, I think that’s going to be a great opportunity to educate people about how these things happen."

Ignorance was widespread. Until last week, Diskin said, even Eugene’s Lane Transit District wasn’t aware that its universal student program was about to be completely de-funded.

"We probably should have been in dialogue with each other much earlier," Diskin said.

During the legislature’s three-month debate over the future of a year-old program that gives free all-you-can-ride transit passes to 13,000 Portland students, general-interest media coverage in Portland consisted of one online-only op-ed column and two paragraphs in an Oregonian news article about tax credits. Both were published last week.

No government agency saw YouthPass as its own program, Diskin said. In the absence of anyone to shepherd the program, the Multnomah Youth Commission tried unsuccessfully to fill the gap.

"There should have been one entity that was charged with oversight of the whole process," Diskin said. "And it shouldn’t be the mayor’s office and it shouldn’t be the Youth Commission."

a PPS student ID with green YouthPass stickerThis summer, Diskin said, the Youth Commission will partner with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon in an attempt to build support for a directly funded program similar to YouthPass.

"In the Youth Commission … we’re not as adept at community organizing as we could be," Diskin said. "Which is why I think we’re building that nice relationship with OPAL."

Diskin said it’s possible Portland Public Schools could scrape together enough money to continue the YouthPass through June 2012. Before the 2012 legislative session, Diskin hopes to identify a "champion" in the state legislature – he mentioned state Reps. Jefferson Smith, Ben Cannon, and Jules Bailey – who could lead an effort to create a statewide program to support creative student transportation solutions.

If you’d like to help the effort in any way, contact Diskin at todd.diskin@portlandoregon.gov or OPAL’s Grayce Bentley, grayce@opalpdx.org.

Urban subsidy of suburban students to continue

I can’t resist a brief editorial P.S. here.

Though YouthPass is sometimes perceived as a handout for urban students, it’s actually urban taxpayers who subsidize rural and suburban student transit.

If urban school districts in Portland, Eugene and Salem opted to replace transit passes with more expensive, twice-a-day yellow-bus systems, the state would reimburse 70 percent of their cost, Diskin said, as it does for every other district. But because the urban districts choose to team up with local public transit agencies to provide better service for less taxpayer money, the state covers only 35 percent of the cost.

Or, after December, none of it.

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