Transportation

Sacramento city students soon will ride buses for free. Will suburban students be next?

Tens of thousands of students living in Sacramento or attending school in Sacramento will soon be able to ride buses or light rail trains for free any time under an agreement between transit and city officials.

The Sacramento Regional Transit board on Monday approved what district officials say could be a groundbreaking student free-ride program, beginning Oct. 1, boosting ridership and helping families with what is often a daily logistical headache: How do parents get to work and get their kids to school if the children attend a school that isn’t within walking distance?

The change allows families to save as much as $240 a year per student, based on the savings from no longer having to buy a $20 monthly pass.

Sacramento City Unified School District officials say the free rides should boost school attendance.

“We are very excited to partner with SacRT so students won’t have that challenge getting to school,” school district spokesman Alex Barrios said. “We have a high concentration of absenteeism rates. A study we conducted showed transportation is one of the major barriers to attendance.”

An estimated 100,000 city of Sacramento students are eligible. The city of Sacramento has agreed to compensate SacRT up to $1 million to subsidize the program for the first year.

The program will be called “RydeFreeRT,” a name devised by a group of students working with SacRT. Transit officials are putting together a promotional campaign. Schools will have stickers this fall to put on student IDs.

SacRT officials say they hope to extend their free-ride program to students in the agency’s entire service area, which covers most of Sacramento County. Transit officials say they are in talks with other cities and school districts in hopes of getting funding agreements to expand the program.

“I think it going to make a significant difference in the lives of a lot of our families in our community,” said SacRT board member Jay Schenirer, a city councilman and former city school board member who championed the program.

The new program represents a major reversal. Two years ago, SacRT had one of the highest student pass rates in the country at $55 per month. That was reduced in 2017 to $20 per month.

Transit officials say they hope the program will boost paid ridership longterm by introducing a young generation of Sacramentans to bus and rail ridership. Sutter Health has signed on to conduct a study of the effects of the program. “We are trying to create lifelong riders,” Schenirer said.

Sacramento’s school year begins Aug. 29. Students using buses will have to purchase a pass for the month of September, before the free pass program kicks in in October.

The agency will launch a major overhaul of its bus routes beginning Sunday, Sept. 8. For information on the new routes, go to www.sacrt.com/forward.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
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