With another year of C-Tran’s free bus passes for low-income students on the books, one member of the agency’s Board of Directors is pushing to expand the program.
C-Tran’s Youth Opportunity Pass program, now in its second year, gives students at five participating school districts — Evergreen, Vancouver, Battle Ground, Camas and Washougal — free yearlong bus pass stickers they can affix to their ID cards. For Evergreen and Vancouver students, the apple stickers also cover access to Marshall and Firstenburg Community Centers.
The program is targeted at students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, and school counselors and staff are tasked with determining what students would best benefit from access to free bus transportation. But Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen, who sits on the C-Tran board, wants to expand that opportunity to all students, regardless of income.
“When you look at it from the aspect of giving our youth something to do and a way to get there, it can’t be overlooked,” Hansen said in an interview with The Columbian last week.
A C-Tran report presented to the board at last Tuesday’s meeting indicates the districts have handed out 24 percent of the 3,000 passes issued to districts. Last year, the agency gave 1,500 passes to Evergreen and Vancouver school districts.
By raw numbers, that represents an increase in passes issued from the 2015-2016 school year — 721 versus 488 — but, by percentage, a 9 percent decrease.
But school districts say C-Tran’s report underestimates how many passes have actually been issued. Evergreen spokeswoman Gail Spolar said the district handed out 425 passes, compared to the 393 reported by C-Tran. She notes that the district has to wait for schools to report how many completed applications they’ve received, meaning “there is a lag” between the district’s numbers and the public transportation agency’s numbers.
Tim Fox, dean of students at Mountain View High School, said the program eliminates obstacles for students getting to school. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 36.7 percent of the schools students received free or reduced price lunches in the 2015-2016 school year.
Having access to the bus also opens extracurricular opportunities for students, Fox said.
“We have kids that have jobs. We have a lot of kids that are on internships,” he said. “It allows them to not have to rely on somebody else to get them where they need to be.”
Fox hopes to see the program continued.
“This is a big deal, and it has been for us,” he said.
Vancouver schools spokeswoman Amanda Richter said that the district handed out about 625 passes, versus the 312 C-Tran reported. Principals at schools assign a counselor, clerk or Family and Community Resource Center coordinator to give out the passes, she said.
Hudson’s Bay High School and the Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies have seen particularly high interest due to how close they are to the Vine bus rapid transit system on Fourth Plain Boulevard, she said.
C-Tran spokeswoman Chris Selk said the agency is at the mercy of school districts, which are tasked with distributing the passes, to accurately report how many passes have been given out.
Push for expansion
The low numbers presented to the C-Tran board gave Vancouver Mayor Pro Tem Anne McEnerny-Ogle pause before supporting Hansen’s idea of expanding the program.
“We offered a lot of opportunity there,” McEnerney-Ogle said. “We doubled the number of passes out. I think another year gives them another opportunity to strengthen those numbers.”
Two fellow C-Tran board members, Battle Ground City Councilor Mike Dalesandro and Clark County Councilor John Blom, a Republican, supported Hansen’s idea. Blom, however, noted that behavior problems could become a challenge with more students accessing the passes.
“If you have kids that you’re just giving a free bus pass to and they’re causing problems on the bus, what’s our ability to say, you know what, this is a privilege and you’ve lost this privilege,” Blom said.
Hansen argued at the meeting that the program gives students better access to employment, church functions or even hanging out at the mall.
He also said expanding the program could encourage more students to become lifelong users of C-Tran, a bonus to an agency that frequently discusses how it can improve shrinking ridership numbers.
“They need to get a better understanding of how the C-Tran system works,” he said. “We’re repeating a lot of the same steps to increase our ridership and expecting different results. We all know how that’s turned.”
C-Tran has not recommended expanding the program, but C-Tran voted 5-4 at its Tuesday meeting to direct staff to compile a report on the feasibility of expanding the passes. The board will revisit the issue at next month’s meeting.