Sonoma County college students and veterans can still ride buses for free in 2017

College students and veterans in Sonoma County will still be able to ride buses free of charge in the new year, as the Board of Supervisors earlier this month approved extending the popular service for a third year.

Whether students will be able to take advantage of the free rides beyond 2017, however, likely hinges on schools - or students themselves - ponying up more money to further subsidize the program’s cost.

Since the program’s launch in 2015, county supervisors have consistently stated their desire for schools to pick up more of the tab for the service.

Santa Rosa Junior College students, who comprise the largest group using the free ride program, may be asked to tax themselves to keep it going.

The school’s student government is considering placing a ballot measure before students in April seeking a transportation fee of up to $10 per student each semester to subsidize free-ride programs.

That essentially would mean students paying more money out of pocket for a service that not every student uses or needs.

Robert Ethington, dean of student affairs and engagement for the school, said such a fee more broadly would help the school meet goals of getting people out of cars, reducing parking impacts and helping economically disadvantaged students.

“They see all the benefits,” Ethington said this week of student leaders, who he predicted would support the ballot measure.

The projected cost of the free bus program for 2017 is nearly $330,000, of which nearly $280,000 is forecast to come from the county’s general fund.

The rest - nearly $50,000 - would be made up by contributions from the junior college and Sonoma State University.

Should SRJC students approve the transit fee, however, the county’s cost could be reduced by as much as $95,000, according to one analysis.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the bus service is “critical” for students who struggle to afford college, as well as for developing the next generation of workers in the county.

“If you’ve got 800 students who are basically couch-surfing, they might not call that being homeless, but that’s what it is,” Zane said. “Paying for transportation can be a real struggle. We cannot afford to not support this program.”

College student ridership for 2017 is projected to total 176,350 trips, which would represent a slight reduction from 2016.

In 2015, SRJC students comprised 86 percent of total college students using the free bus service.

Longer-term, the county may seek to expand the free bus program to students in grades K-12.

Supervisors have signaled their intention to keep free rides in place for veterans for the foreseeable future, using money from the general fund.

The projected cost for that program in 2017 is $41,000, which would represent a 15 percent increase in trips taken by veterans.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or ?On Twitter ?@deadlinederek.

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