Commuter students make up approximately 54 percent of the student body at Southern Oregon University, according to SOU’s Commuter Resource Center, and most of these students spend several dollars a day using the Rogue Valley Transportation District’s bus network to get to and from campus.
While in the past both SOU and the city of Ashland had programs aimed to reduce or eliminate the cost of riding the bus for students, they were all discontinued for various reasons.
In 1993, the Associated Students of Southern Oregon University voted on an $8,000 grant, which allowed SOU students to ride for free on all RVTD bus routes. In 2003 the city of Ashland subsidized free rides within city limits, with the aim of boosting transit use. The program was wildly successful, and ridership skyrocketed.
ASSOU overturned its policy in 2005, reasoning that because the city had a paid arrangement with RVTD to keep ridership in Ashland free, it was ineffective for ASSOU to continue underwriting a similar policy. Ironically, the city cancelled its policy shortly afterwards due to the cost. If it still existed today, the city would be paying $700,000 per year.
Currently, bus fares on RVTD routes in Ashland cost $1, half the going rate elsewhere in the valley. This is due to a $76,926 subsidy provided by the city in order to promote mass transit, although the subsidy is set to run out at the end of this year.
While SOU has expressed interest in reinstating their program, the cost is prohibitively expensive. According to Danielle Mancuso, Assistant Director of Student Life and Involvement, the cost of providing free rides for SOU students would stretch to well above $100,000 dollars, due in part to increased enrollment.
Striking a balance between affordability and ridership rates has always been a headache for transit companies, and RVTD is no exception.
“That’s a perennial question in transit,” said Nathan Bloom, transportation options planner for RVTD. “I think every station is always trying to find a balance.”
In an effort to maintain stable bus fares, RVTD has moved to make two thirds of their fleet run on natural gas. The gas itself is piped down along the I-5 corridor from Canada by Avista Utilities. Although one third of their fleet still runs on diesel, this is a strategic move on the part of RVTD to keep long-term prices as low as possible. By diversifying their fuel sources, RVTD believes that they will be able to provide a stable pricing pattern despite fluctuations in the market. According to Market Watch, a subsidiary of the Wall Street Journal, natural gas has proven to have a relatively cheap and stable pricing, especially for Oregon residents.
Currently RVTD has submitted an application for increased funding from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated organization that distributes federal transit dollars. If successful, this would allow RVTD to run two hours later than it currently does, as well as provide basic service on Saturdays.
While the challenge of providing cheap transit to SOU students and the population at large has proven to be problematic, Rogue Community College does have a successful program where, for $30, students can purchase a bus pass which lasts for the duration of the term. This is significantly cheaper than the price of a monthly RVTD bus pass, which can stretch as high as $56 without any accommodations. During winter term at RCC this program was shown to have generated 18,115 rides, according to Bloom.
Despite the bumpy road of changing transit policy, all parties involved have been able to maintain amicable relations.
“Overall, we’re really pleased with our relationship with the city, and it’s really the drivers that love serving passengers,” said Bloom. “Whenever I ride the bus, they’re always asking me when we can provide more service for them.”