The fight for free transit

Mieke Ryneal

Mieke Ryneal often uses RVTD to travel to and from SOU. Photo by JD Anderson/The Siskiyou

It has been over five years since students at Southern Oregon University have been able to enjoy free rates for Rogue Valley Transportation District bus services, but a university committee is working to re-establish negotiations with the transportation service provider, and make alternative options more available for students.

Negotiations involving SOU and RVTD have been few and far between since the university ended its contract with the transportation service provider, but both sides, as well as the City of Ashland are eager to reignite those discussions.

The City of Ashland is scheduled to begin negotiations with RVTD before the beginning of this summer, as the pair’s cur rent $251,797 enhanced services contract ends in June 2011. The city has also extended an invitation for SOU to join the negotiations; something that could prove to be beneficial for students, said Larry Blake, Director of Transportation and Sustainability at SOU.

A prior contract between SOU and RVTD, which gave all students free bus passes, dried up in 2005, after the Associated Students of SOU Senate voted to discontinue it. The contract cost SOU $21,670, which was pulled from the student incidental fee budget once annually.

In light of an up to 10 percent cut back for all student fee funded programs at SOU, recent discussions with RVTD haven’t produced the results SOU would have liked. According to SOU Assistant Director of Student Life Danielle Mancuso, the transportation service provider said free bus passes would cost SOU about $44,000 per year if it were to be reinstated.

“I said ‘is that the best you can do?’” said Mancuso, who is also a member of the SOU Sustainability Council’s transportation sub-committee.

“One of the things on the table for us is really trying to get that bus pass back for students… it’s one of the top things on our list,” she said.

In addition to its negotiations with RVTD, and with the help of SOU student and director of environmental affairs for ASSOU James Ellsworth, the transportation sustainability sub-committee is aiming to give SOU students, a more adequate, low-cost and sustainable form of transportation.

The committee is hoping to close on a deal with Ashland Car Share that would allow students to pay for the car share program’s cut-rate services for students through their SOU accounts, said Ellsworth.

Currently, the Ashland Car Share charges students a $25 per month rate, after a $25 membership fee, for access to one of its cars that cost $3.95 per hour, and 30 cents per mile to drive; the membership includes a free bus pass for RVTD.  The car share program covers the cost of fuel and maintenance.

“For students to be able to have reliable transit that doesn’t require funding from student fees is important and our talks with Ashland Car Share achieved this,” Ellsworth said.

Blake and Mancuso each praised the car share program, but agree that free bus transit throughout the Rogue Valley would be very beneficial for students at SOU, especially commuters.

Nearly 54 percent of SOU students live outside of Ashland, but the latest survey from the University, in 2006, showed that just over 20 percent of students had ever taken the bus offered by RVTD.

Blake said he is hopeful that the University and the City of Ashland will sit down in the near future and attempt to work out an agreement to offer RVTD in June.

General Manager for RVTD Julie Brown said she would “welcome a conversation with SOU and its students to discuss a free bus pass program.”

Brown also said RVTD plans to initiate those talks with SOU in the near future.

Ashland City Council member David Chapman also said he is in favor of buying a large amount of bus passes for local residents, the only obstacle is getting RVTD to agree on those terms, he said.

Regardless, Chapman said the city is not happy with its current contract with RVTD, as ridership levels have declined over the last few years.

“We are going to want some sort of different arrangement, this one didn’t work,” he said.

“It would be a possibility that the combined voices of the City of Ashland and SOU would have more clout with RVTD,” Blake said.

The transportation sustainability sub-committee plans to administer a campus wide survey during the upcoming weeks to gain a better understanding of what SOU students want to get out of public transportation.

“If a student needs a bus pass, I would like for them to have one through SOU and the student-fee process, I think we should be supporting our students that way … but it has to be at a reasonable price,” Mancuso said.

 

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