Sonoma County’s high school-age Latino Student Congress has joined a campaign to have bus fare waived for students of all ages who want to use the Sonoma County Transit and Santa Rosa CityBus systems, saying the cost of monthly passes puts them out of reach for many who would otherwise use public transportation.
During a series of testimonials at a news conference closing out a daylong youth conference at Santa Rosa Junior College, teen speakers said their bid, if successful, would free younger students to get to school, jobs, extracurricular programs and social engagements while cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions and bringing new riders to public transit.
“I feel like, by doing this little change, it would make a big difference,” said Milton Medina, 16, a sophomore at Roseland University Prep. He said he hates asking his parents, who work from early morning till nighttime, for money to ride the bus.
A monthly county transit student pass is currently $47 online, while a CityBus youth pass is $25.
That’s out of reach for many low-income families, supporters said.
Maria Carrillo High School junior Cecilia Avelar, also 16, said permitting students to use a single pass to ride wherever and whenever they want would be like offering “a ticket to freedom” that would encourage some of those who don’t ride buses to get on board, expanding ridership.
“The students are really receptive of this idea at Maria Carrillo,” Avelar said.
Medina and Avelar were among numerous students recruited to participate in the effort by the North Bay Organizing Committee through its Latino Student Congress and an organizing committee offshoot called Transit Riders United, which is devoted to advancing reliable, affordable transit and has adopted free passes for kindergarten-age through college as one of its primary goals.
Spokesman Gerry La Londe-Berg said the student passes would expand on a pilot program under which college students and veterans have free passage aboard county transit buses this year. That program began Jan. 1 and costs $265,000.
A quarter-cent sales tax on the county ballot this June is projected to generate nearly $20 million in new revenue for the county this year, if passed. The measure would enhance the county’s ability to subsidize students permanently and across all age groups, as well, at a cost of about $400,000 a year, La Londe-Berg said.
Sonoma County supervisors, who voted to put Measure A on the ballot, already have expressed willingness to put up to 10 percent into transit subsidies.
La Londe-Berg said he had been told it would cost Santa Rosa CityBus $1.1 million to enact a similar student subsidy.
Pamela Wentzel, 29, commutes from Santa Rosa to Sonoma State University, where she is studying sociology and Chicano and Latino studies. Wentzel said the free bus pass she now enjoys as a Sonoma County college student has been a godsend, freeing up money to buy groceries and keep her old car running for emergencies while providing reliable transportation.
“I believe this would be a great service in the K-to-12th grades, as well,” Wentzel said.
A petition supporting the program is in circulation among area high school students and has garnered 300 signatures from teens who attend Roseland University Prep, Altimira Middle School in Sonoma, and Petaluma, Maria Carrillo and Analy high schools, at least, students said.