College students, veterans to get free rides on Sonoma County buses

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Public transit advocates celebrated what they hailed as a major win Tuesday when Sonoma County supervisors unanimously approved a one-year pilot program that will allow college students and veterans to ride county buses free of charge.

Supervisors voiced overwhelming support for the initiative, which could provide fare subsidies for nearly 300,000 riders a year, based on county estimates. Students and veterans would just need to show a valid identification card to qualify.

The $311,000 cost for the yearlong program, beginning, Jan. 1, will be paid from the county general fund to Sonoma County Transit, a separate county agency. The bus system is operated by an Illinois-based subsidiary of the French corporation Veolia.

County officials hope the effort will boost ridership and increase access to college campuses countywide, including Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College, as well as eliminate hurdles veterans face in getting to medical appointments and other destinations.

Students from nearby college campuses welcomed the transportation help.

“This is going to help me afford my textbooks,” said Forrest Horobin, 17, who spends about $40 a month traveling between his home in Forestville and the main SRJC campus.

Supervisor Mike McGuire pushed for the program during the board’s discussion on a sales tax measure to fund repairs to the county’s 1,382-mile road network. The tax proposal, now set to go before voters this March, calls for 10 percent of the estimated $537 million in revenue to be spent on public transit services.

McGuire, who is running for a seat in the state Senate, said that should voters approve the sales tax increase next year, the county could extend the fare program to include middle and high school students. He said he wanted to act now to address unmet needs in the county.

“Student fees are increasing and the cost of living continues to rise,” McGuire said. “And we wanted to do what we could to help veterans, who have sacrificed a significant amount for our country.”

Supporters from Santa Rosa Junior College and the North Bay Organizing Project, which has long advocated for free bus rides, applauded Tuesday’s action.

“This is a major step in the right direction,” said Gerry La Londe-Berg, who has led the effort for the North Bay Organizing Project, a coalition of neighborhood, immigrant, religious and environmental groups and activists. “It’s going to help people who are economically disadvantaged. It will literally allow people go to school and help people get out of their cars.”

About a dozen representatives from county veterans organizations showed up Tuesday to show support.

“This is one of the simplest solutions meeting the needs of veterans in our community,” said John Logan, a commander with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which assists veterans. “Transportation can help vets get what they need to become whole again — medical appointments, job interviews, even getting to the grocery store.”

Road repair advocates have taken issue with the county spending tax measure proceeds on transit, but they did not take a stance on the free transit program for students and veterans.

“We take the position that the county needs to put as much as it can into roads,” Michael Troy, co-founder of the Save Our Sonoma Roads advocacy group, said in a phone interview. “Roads need more attention, but we understand sometimes there needs to be political compromises to achieve a bigger goal.”

Supervisors encouraged cities to join the county in offering fare subsidies. They said expanding public transportation is critical as population and demand for service increases. Ridership for Sonoma County Transit has grown since the recession, with 1.3 million riders this year, compared to 1.2 million in 2010.

“Now that Sonoma County has embarked on this, it’s time to talk to our friends in Petaluma and Santa Rosa,” Board Chairman David Rabbitt said.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo applauded the program but voiced skepticism that subsidies would lead to greater ridership. He said the county’s transit system continues to fall short in reaching rural residents.

Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin said while they endorsed free rides for students and veterans, they had remaining concerns that other groups be given equal treatment, such as low income people, the disabled and the elderly.

“Transportation is a major cost of living on par with food and shelter,” Zane said. “I think what needs to come more into play in the discussion is what struggling families are facing today.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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