Transportation issues, student solutions

Written by | May 23, 2012

Urban planning graduate students conduct research on PSU transportation
Transport PSU examines the cost of PSU student transportation. From left to right: Brooke Jordan, Zef Wagner, Ryan Farncomb, Derek Dauphin.

Transport PSU examines the cost of PSU student transportation. From left to right: Brooke Jordan, Zef Wagner, Ryan Farncomb, Derek Dauphin.

Transport PSU—a group of five graduate students from the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning—are researching potential solutions to Portland State’s future transportation issues. Through student surveys and collaborations with PSU Transportation and Parking Services, TriMet and the Associated Students of Portland State University, the group hopes to better inform students about the increasingly complicated transportation matters that affect them.

The group, composed of Derek Abe, Derek Dauphin, Ryan Farncomb, Brooke Jordan and Zef Wagner, believe that the single biggest problem concerning PSU student transportation is cost. As TriMet continues to restructure its fare system, PSU’s transit program for students will be subject to major changes as well.

“One of the biggest problems is that the cost of transit for students is already expensive and it’s likely to become a lot more expensive in the very near future. That’s in addition to service cuts and the elimination of the Free Rail Zone,” Abe said.

Dauphin was surprised at the state of the student transit program when he began his master’s program at PSU. “I was surprised that a city that’s so well known for transportation, and has a university that’s so central to the city, really has very little to offer students in terms of reasonable ways to use the system,” he said.

Transport PSU, which receives its funding through the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, has primarily focused its research on PSU’s FlexPass student transit program. The FlexPass allows a student unlimited access to all TriMet lines and currently costs $190 per term. The group examined transit pass programs at several comparable universities and found that PSU’s FlexPass is among the most expensive and complicated programs.

Wagner explained that the high cost of the PSU FlexPass makes the purchase only worth it to students who ride public transit every day. This simply doesn’t apply to a lot of PSU students, especially those who don’t have class five days a week and those who use a variety of methods: walking, biking and ride-sharing to get to and from campus.

One of the reasons that the FlexPass is and will continue to be more expensive than other schools’ passes is because of the funding mechanism used to subsidize it, according to Transport PSU.

“Right now the FlexPass is cheaper than a normal transit pass because the university subsidizes it, but there’s no plan or mechanism for it to grow over time, so the fare is increasing, but the subsidy is staying the same. That means the FlexPass is going to get more and more expensive,” Wagner said.

Currently, the FlexPass subsidy is funded through revenue diverted from the parking program. Transportation Options Manager Ian Stude claimed that PSU would spend about $600,000 subsidizing the FlexPass this year. He said that as more people buy the pass, the subsidy must be spread over a larger group of people. As the pass becomes more popular, the costs increase.

If TriMet goes ahead with its proposed changes to the fare system, Transport PSU estimates that the FlexPass will cost approximately $230 next year. However, Stude claimed that the university is currently in negotiations with TriMet to make the FlexPass’s cost increase happen more gradually.

“We’re working to make an agreement with TriMet that allows the price of the FlexPass to go up at a more even rate over the next three years rather than having a really large jump that happens next year,” Stude said. “It doesn’t solve the problem—transit is getting more expensive, but we’re softening the blow and spreading it out over a longer period of time.”

The other serious issue identified by Transport PSU is the finite amount of campus parking combined with a growing university. Farncomb claimed that PSU is fast approaching a breaking point where driving will no longer be an option but public transit won’t be affordable, and something has to give.

“I think the biggest associated issue with transit is the big projected increase in student enrollment in coming years, and no increase in parking. Driving a car is not going to be an option,” Farncomb said.

Farncomb is right. Stude claimed that PSU has no plans to increase the amount of parking on campus because the cost is not manageable. According to Stude, current estimates for building a campus parking structure boil down to $40,000 per parking space.

“Our goal is to make sure that as the university grows, we do whatever we can to limit the growth of the parking supply because parking is very expensive,” Stude said.

The most integral component of Transport PSU’s research is its online survey. The survey can still be accessed on the group’s website, and students are encouraged to take it not only because it betters the group’s research but also because it’s also very informative.

“The survey is also helping to inform the student body about these issues. There’s a lot of information in there that I don’t think is widely known about the transit pass program and the potential cost increases,” Farncomb said.

The group is using the data collected by the survey to determine student opinion about the current transit pass system. The end result will be a series of recommendations compiled in a yet-to-be-created final study report.

“The point of all this was to eventually generate some options and alternatives for ways that we may begin to think about restructuring our own transit pass program at PSU,” Abe said.

Alternative options thought up by the group are based on amending the current FlexPass system. One possibility, the most commonly used among similar universities, is the universal pass. In a universal pass program, every student is issued a fully or partially subsidized transit pass, usually bundled in with student fees. Because everyone is given the pass, the overall cost is lower. It’s analogous to buying transit in bulk.

Another possible new transit pass program is the opt-out. In this structure, every student is initially issued a transit pass but, unlike the universal program, students have the ability to return the pass and get a refund of their money.

This option is more expensive than the universal system because some students will choose to return the pass, spreading the cost among fewer students. Wagner claimed that the University of Washington used to employ the opt-out program and found that about 80 percent of students decided to keep the pass.

“We just wanted to get a sense of what students feel about these options, and ultimately student government would have to decide to take this on and carry it forward,” Wagner said.

The group met with ASPSU earlier this month to discuss its concerns and allow senators to ask questions. One issue brought up at that meeting was the fact that TriMet’s transit pass programs are identical for both large employers and students. Wagner said that one thing students could advocate for would be a differentiation between these two groups.

“Students could ask for a different formula. Students are not the same as people who work at Intel,” Wagner said.

The group also broached the notion of creating a formal transportation committee within ASPSU. Dauphin said that a permanent transportation committee is needed because this issue is ever-evolving.

“It’s just going to keep changing. TriMet is going to change fares or throw in more light rail lines. These issues need to be regularly evaluated and that’s something that a student government is better set to do that a little old research group,” Dauphin said.

To take Transport PSU’s survey, visit transportpsu.com.

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