Cracks in the foundation

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Questions raised as TriMet youth pass loses funding

At the end of the calendar year, Portland and Eugene high school students may have to find a new way to get to school.

City funding for the TriMet Youth Pass Program, which gave over $3 million worth of free TriMet passes to Portland students each year, is being cut, leaving Portland Public Schools with only $800,000 for the program and $2.5 million left to find.

The future looks pretty grim for the program, which was originally funded by Business Energy Tax Credits. The Multnomah Youth Commission, comprised of young people ages 13–21, got the program on the map by advocating and rallying to create funding for ways for students to get to school, work and extracurricular activities. The Youth Pass Program has been extremely successful, with 80 percent of eligible riders using the passes at least once per week. Twenty-five percent use the passes to go to a job according to my figures. Many others, possibly unable to receive a free pass due to their parent’s income, use the pass to attend schools where they are able to participate in accelerated learning at places like Portland Community College.

Although other school districts are required to provide transportation to students who live more that 1.5 miles away, this is not the case for Eugene and Portland schools. Both districts have a waiver excluding them from having to provide yellow buses or paying in full for the youth passes, according to Matt Shelby, public information officer for Portland Public Schools. The waiver determines that since both cities have such “great” public transportation systems, no backup net is necessary. This has been in place since before Shelby was hired, six years ago. Portland Public Schools will still provide $800,000 in funding to students that both live 1.5 miles away and are eligible for free student lunches.

No one seems willing to foot the bill for the rest. Not the city, nor the school district, nor TriMet. Mary Fetsch, TriMet communications director, is quick to point out that the already subsidized youth passes are “only” $27 a month.

Closer examination of her statement proves how out of touch TriMet is with the situation. Shelby recognizes that, “for a lot of students, the $27 is real money and money that would be taking away from other things.” Not to mention that if you have more that one child in high school, that $27 really isn’t “only” $27.

Fetsch’s comment is condescending to the lower-income parents of Portland, who rely on schools to do the schools’ job while the parents do theirs: get kids to school safely, educate them, and get them back home safely. This has been the role of public schools in America for long enough that making it into the parents’ responsibility, not the schools’ or the city’s, to provide transportation is a low blow.

The pursuit for outside funding continues, as many state legislators such as Tobias Read think that “tax credits are a clumsy way to fund transit, and we should work to find direct methods.” In addition, Todd Diskin, who staffs the Multnomah County Youth Commissions Sustainability Committee, thinks that leaving the program in the hands of the city or the youth commission is a bad idea. He is backing the youth commission teaming up with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon to find direct funding.

The choice not to use yellow buses seems like an obvious one as it saves an estimated $1.7 million, and it is better environmentally and creates less traffic, keeping more vehicles off the road. However, it could also be argued that with so many eligible drivers unemployed in Portland, creating those jobs also helps the economy—maybe the latter two issues are superfluous in the grand scheme of our growth and traffic concerns.

While people scramble to find funding for the next school year, no one seems to be asking the most important question: who allowed Portland and Eugene to get transportation waivers in the first place? It is simply infuriating that such a weak transit foundation would be built under our high school students, making it such that if they wanted to get funding for youth passes to begin with, they had to fight for it themselves.

Layers of greenwashing about sustainability and saving money on yellow buses has allowed all involved to make it seem like the youth passes are the only viable option, which may be true. None the less, as business is relied on more and more to fund as well as provide public services, these services and institutions become less and less public, while not insuring that they will be here for years to come.

Our city owes it to Portland public school students to provide safe, reliable, free transportation for their hard work not only being great students, but also being exemplary enough to go to college early and get after-school jobs. Passing the buck from one organization to the next is a sad excuse for a public school transit system.

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