RT slashes student fares after seeing youth ridership plummet

YoloBus has begun offering free rides to students. Stockton transit officials have done the same. Sacramento Regional Transit, shown here, will follow suit next month.
YoloBus has begun offering free rides to students. Stockton transit officials have done the same. Sacramento Regional Transit, shown here, will follow suit next month. Sacramento Bee

Sacramento’s bus and light rail agency will drastically reduce student fares next month in hopes of boosting sagging ridership among teens.

The Regional Transit board on Monday unanimously agreed to cut the price of student passes from $55 per month to $20 beginning Jan. 1. The passes are typically sold in half-month intervals.

Students from low-income families, who currently receive a discounted pass for $30 a month as part of the school free lunch program, would see their monthly cost drop to $20 under the proposal but receive no further discount.

The new fares, if approved, are scheduled to last six months, until the end of the school year. The SacRT board will review student ridership numbers in three months, however, to decide whether to continue the lower fares next year.

The agency also will explore offering reduced-rate summertime passes to students as well, Folsom Mayor and SacRT board Chairman Andy Morin said.

“This looks like a low-risk approach, financially, to see if we can generate some ridership that we hope will last through lifetimes,” he said.

The proposed cuts would apply only to K-12 students. Students at local community colleges and at Sacramento State already pay deeply discounted fares through contracts SacRT has in place with the colleges.

SacRT officials said the student fare reduction is part of an ongoing effort to reverse nine years of incremental ridership declines. SacRT ridership peaked in 2009 at 35 million, but has dropped to 22 million this year. The agency increased fares 10 percent last year.

Student ridership has fallen even more dramatically, from a peak of 6 million in 2004 to 1.5 million this year. In that time, SacRT has tripled the price of a student pass and reduced bus service.

Sacramento’s youth bus pass currently costs more per month than in San Francisco ($38); Los Angeles ($24); San Diego ($36 local); Stockton ($40); and Portland ($28).

Sacramento transit ridership dropped at about the time service was cut more than 20 percent when it ran into financial problems in the recent recession, leaving a bare-bones system of infrequent buses and limited destinations.

The agency in January will launch a year-long analysis of how it is delivering its service. It will focus on starting from scratch by designing new bus routes. The agency also may consider new types of service, such as ride-sharing, that address modern travel patterns in the region.

The agency has a long-term goal of providing free rides for K-12 students at some point, but that likely would require new taxes or other sustainable revenues that have not yet been identified.

SacRT analysts estimate the lower student fares could reduce agency revenues by $100,000 during the test period from January through the end of June. Spokeswoman Devra Selenis said the agency will heavily market the reductions in hopes of getting enough new student riders to compensate for that loss.

The passes affect students at numerous school districts in the county, including Sacramento City Unified School District, the city’s largest district.

The discounted passes will be available starting Dec. 20. Families can purchase passes or Connect Cards at the SacRT service center at 1225 R St., or at Raley’s and Bel Air stories. Connect Cards also can be purchased online at connecttransitcard.com.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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