Fresno-area community college students will be able to ride city buses for free at least through the fall 2020 semester after State Center Community College District trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to continue funding the program with parking revenues.
In the meantime, district officials will keep looking for long-term solutions, which could include additional student fees, a grant from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, and support from the college district’s foundation.
Meanwhile, a new proposal surfaced from Bitwise Industries, which pledged to fund student bus passes if the district teams with the City of Fresno to implement a new mobile app for bus riders.
But the cost of that app development is unknown, as is the length of time that Bitwise would underwrite the bus pass program.
Started As A Pilot Program
The State Center free bus ride program began in 2017-18 as a pilot project to help mitigate the impacts of solar construction in parking lots, with the district paying $1.10 for single rides and no more than $48 monthly per student. Regular fares are $1.25 on FAX buses.
Students who pay $5 for an Associated Students ID card get access to free food at campus pantries and free bus rides. The program is open to Fresno City College and Clovis Community College students.
Christine Miktarian, vice chancellor of operations, reported at Tuesday’s board meeting that the heaviest ridership was by students living in the northwest and southwest neighborhoods of Fresno. More than half were Hispanic and under the age of 21.
From August 2017 through December 2019, nearly 7,900 students took more than 1 million rides.
The bus ride program was continued in 2018-19 because of continued construction impacts to parking lots, but the administration was already planning to phase it out over the following year while giving students time to come up with funding options.
When the city announced in January that the free bus ride program would end in June, students alerted the trustees, who were previously unaware of the program’s impending end.
More Work Remains
In the next few months, the district will work with the city over reducing fares below the current $1.10 per ride and considering the Bitwise proposal, and also seek grant funding from the air district.
In the meantime, students will consider a transportation fee that all students would pay for — but vote on first — to underwrite the free bus fares.
Trustee Annalisa Perea praised the students for expressing a willingness to tax themselves to help cover the costs of the bus fare program, saying they showed “great leadership.”
But, she added, “I don’t think we need to put this extra burden on the backs of our students. We are tasked here with reducing the obstacles for the college-going experience, not adding more obstacles.”
Some of Fresno’s college students already are battling homelessness as well as hunger, Perea said. “Our students face quite a few obstacles as it is.”
Multiple Funding Sources To Consider
Perea said she recommended that the district consider two funding sources: the $100,000 to $150,000 that Follett, which took over the operations of campus bookstores, had pledged to pay annually for “a student success fee,” or funds that some students don’t recover and that the trustees wind up shifting into the general fund.
There might be expansions to the bus ride program: In coming months the district will work with the city to extend additional transit services to Clovis Community College and to other college sites using other transit services.