Santa Rosa Junior College among schools getting unlimited Bay Area transit passes

Around 50,000 people in the Bay Area are being given an unlimited public transit pass spanning every transit agency in the Bay Area.|

Around 50,000 people in the Bay Area are being given an unlimited public transit pass spanning every transit agency in the region, including Sonoma-Marin Area Transit, Caltrain's commuter rail, Muni buses in San Francisco, BART, and even ferries to Giants games.

The two-year pilot program announced this week, called BayPass, will be given to students attending UC Berkeley, San Jose State University, San Francisco State University, and Santa Rosa Junior College. Another smaller chunk of passes will be given to residents of affordable housing developments run by MidPen Housing.

But many students hoping for two free years of public transit will have to keep their fingers crossed. The passes are being distributed randomly to only 25% of people attending universities in Berkeley, San Jose, and San Francisco to measure the impacts of the pilot compared to people without the pass. Students at Santa Rosa Junior College are in luck as the entire student body is being given passes.

The pilot program comes as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — an umbrella group overseeing the region's more than two dozen transit agencies — is working to make the Bay Area's fragmented transit network easier to use through coordinated fares and creating a single transit mapping system for the entire Bay Area. Transit advocates hope that coordinating the notoriously fragmented maze of regional transit agencies will help lure back riders who fled during the pandemic and eliminate costly fees that accumulate when transferring from different transit agencies.

"This is really piloting something before it can be deployed on a big scale," said Ian Griffiths, who heads Seamless Bay Area, an advocacy group championing an all-agency transit pass.

He hopes lessons learned from the pilot program will help transit agencies overcome financial concerns related to unlimited transit passes. A bill pushed by Seamless Bay Area that set a 2024 deadline for an all-agency pass was quietly squashed in the Legislature this month even though major Bay Area transit agencies supported a watered-down version of the legislation.

Most students receiving the 50,000 passes already have access to unlimited local transit serving their institutions, like AC Transit for UC Berkeley students and VTA for San Jose State University. But they will see a significant boost with free access to regional transit agencies, including BART, Caltrain, and ferries. The pass includes BART trips to SFO, which cost over $10 for most riders.

The MTC will reimburse each transit operator for trips made using the BayPass. According to an April presentation, the MTC estimates the two-year program will cost up to $4.5 million, although that financial projection is based on pre-pandemic ridership numbers. Transit agencies across the Bay Area are expecting a long-term downturn in transit ridership due to the pandemic.

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