Yolo and Sacramento students can hop on the bus free, saving parents $200-plus

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Students in Yolo County can now ride buses for free under an experimental program launched this week by Yolobus, the county’s main transit agency.

The program, which could benefit 30,000-plus teens and younger students, is part of a growing effort among transit agencies locally and nationally to help families get their kids to school more easily and to encourage more bus ridership by introducing transit to a new generation of potential future paying riders.

Sacramento Regional Transit is launching a free-ride program for Sacramento city students at the beginning of next month. SacRT officials say they are in talks with other cities in Sacramento County to expand their free-ride program more broadly to students throughout the county.

Similarly, the San Joaquin bus agency last month launched a free-ride program for 7th- through 12th-grade students in the Stockton Unified School District.

The Yolobus free-ride program, which will be tested for one year, allows anyone age 18 and under to ride the transit agency’s buses anytime, whether to school, work or for any other purpose. Local city and county governments will help underwrite the program costs.

Yolobus officials are promoting their free ride program, which began Sunday, as a way to relieve parents of the responsibility to ferry their kids to and from school each day, a difficult task for some who need to get themselves to work on time each morning.

“Not only will the free rides save money for the kids, it will also save parents from shuttle service duty,” Yolo County Transportation District Executive Director Terry Bassett said.

Bassett said high school and middle school kids likely will be the age group most likely to use the program. The free rides include younger students as well as non-students who are 18 and younger. The agency is asking, though, that children under age 12 ride with someone older than 12.

After the one-year test, officials will decide whether to continue the Yolo free-ride program.

Sacramento Regional Transit will launch its free-ride program for students on Oct. 1. 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.

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.”

The city of Sacramento has agreed to compensate SacRT up to $1 million to subsidize the program for the first year. 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.

Several other transit agencies in the U.S. and Canada have instituted free-ride programs for students, including the Washington, D.C., and Toronto districts.

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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.