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Youth Pass
A Portland Public Schools student ID with a green YouthPass sticker

YouthPass is program created in 2009 that offers a free all-zone TriMet pass to every high school and alternative student at Portland Public Schools, Portland's largest school district. It was first funded by the state, then by collaboration between TriMet and the City of Portland, then (as of September 2012) by the city, TriMet and Portland Public Schools.

TriMet says the main cost of the program is an estimated $2 million in lost fare revenue from students who would otherwise be buying $30 monthly passes or $1.65 two-hour tickets from TriMet. In addition, spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said in June 2012, TriMet also spends a "couple hundred thousand" a year to run extra buses during peak school hours.

Because the State of Oregon requires school districts to provide free transportation to low-income high school students who attend their neighborhood schools and live at least 1.5 miles away, those students are not affected by the presence or absence of YouthPass -- PPS would buy them passes even if the program ended. The program is a direct benefit only to PPS students who either attend non-neighborhood schools (including alternative and charter schools), live near their neighborhood school, or don't qualify for free or reduced lunch.


[edit] Status of the program

"All agree that the current status of the program is unsustainable, the current funding formula," TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said in April 2013. In a March 2013 letter, PPS Superintendent Carole Smith wrote that "any and all changes to the youth pass program will be agreed upon and announced to the public by Dec. 15, 2013 -- prior to the 2014 PPS enrollment and transfer lottery process."

In July 2012, TriMet board member Craig Prosser said he thinks it'd be fairer to offer YouthPass to low-income students in every school district rather than to all students in PPS. Mayor Sam Adams replied that based on his inquiries, other school districts didn't find transit service in their areas good enough to merit replacing yellow buses with TriMet.

[edit] History of the program

Until December 2011, YouthPass was funded by the state's Business Energy Tax Credit. (Another $800,000 came from PPS, 70% of which was reimbursed by state taxpayers. But that was the approximate cost that PPS would be required to bear if YouthPass didn't exist.) In spring 2011, Oregon's legislature decided to remove the program from eligibility for the tax credit. At the time, only a small group of teens on the Multnomah Youth Commission, supported by the office of Mayor Sam Adams, was lobbying the legislature to continue funding YouthPass.

By comparison, the state continues to reimburse schools that offer yellow-bus service for 70% of their yellow-bus expenses.

In late 2011, Mayor Adams's office negotiated a stopgap deal between the city, TriMet and Portland Public Schools to continue YouthPass through June 2012 using a combination of the three agencies' funds.

[edit] Analysis of costs and benefits

at the bus stop
Jefferson High School student Bridgette Lang waits for the 4 in St. Johns.

YouthPass is, by all accounts, a cheaper and more versatile alternative to yellow-bus service in urban areas. Unlike yellow bus service, however, it's unsupported by state taxpayers, so the entire cost of funding the service falls at the local level.

[edit] Cost: $2.5 million less than limited yellow-bus service

The state of Oregon requires school districts to provide transportation to low-income high school students who attend their neighborhood schools and live at least 1.5 miles away, according to PPS Director of Transportation Andy Leibenguth. In April 2011, Leibenguth said the number of students meeting these criteria was "2,500 to 3,000."

If PPS, like most Oregon school districts, maintained its own yellow bus fleet, the annual cost would be $5.2 million, according to a January 2012 waiver application from PPS. The state would then be obligated to pick up 70 percent of that cost, or $3.6 million a year, with Portland Public Schools covering the other $1.6 million.

TriMet estimates that its own cost of providing the service is $2.7 million, entirely from reduced fare sales. (A 2011 study of the cost of the service found that TriMet's additional operating cost due to student ridership was negligible; in 2012, TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said the actual cost is "a couple hundred thousand" dollars for extra buses.) PPS pays TriMet $800,000 annually to offset that cost (of which 70%, $560,000, comes from the state), leaving a $1.9 million loss to TriMet due to the program. During spring 2012, TriMet and the City of Portland agreed to continue the program by splitting that cost.

For Portland Public Schools, Leibenguth said, "it would cost more to provide the yellow-bus transportation for fewer kids."

[edit] Perspectives from key legislators

tobias read
Tobias Read
  • State Rep. Tobias Read: direct funding makes more sense than tax credits. "Tax credits are a clumsy way to fund transit, and we should work to find direct methods." wrote Read (D-Beaverton) in a May 2011 email.
  • State Rep. Vicki Berger: Only students who need them should get passes. Although she supports the use of public transit for school transportation, Berger (R-Salem) said districts have been using the state's money to give out too many passes. "Using transit passes instead of school buses ... makes all the sense in the world. ... But the mechanism for funding it has been sideways. ... We've got to figure out a way to fund it. ... If we're going to provide transit, then why are we letting people have transit passes who could only use them occasionally, and not necessarily to school?" she asked. (PPS Transportation Director Andy Leibenguth said May 25 that he could support such a plan. "If that's the program she's going to support, we can make it happen," he said.)

[edit] Supported by Portland Business Alliance

The Portland Business Alliance, Portland's chamber of commerce, supports YouthPass as well as other provisions of the BETC.

Portland Business Alliance lobbyist Bernie Bottomly said in May 2011 that he thinks it would be politically impossible for the state to directly fund YouthPass, because it would be perceived as a program for large cities that is unavailable to students elsewhere. However, the program was technically available to every school district in the state; it was unavailable in less densely populated districts because in those districts, transit service is less-ridden and less frequent.

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