The Wheels on the Bus Go Into Debt

TranspoGraphicSpreadCroppedby Bradley Brown

Have you ridden a Metropolitan Transit System bus or UCSD shuttle recently?  Do you also own a parking pass?  Most students would probably answer, “Yes, I ride, but no, I do not have a parking pass.”  If this is the case, you have been riding the MTS busses for free thanks to subsidies provided by students and staff who do not utilize these services. It is a common misconception that UCSD students pay for the MTS bus stickers and shuttle fees.  In reality, the revenue from parking passes and parking tickets are used to finance the MTS stickers and the campus shuttles.

Campus transportation has been a hot topic since the UCSD Transportation Services (TS) announced they are operating at an unsustainable level.  In and interview with Meggie Le, former A.S. President, Transportation Services’ costs include debt from parking structure (Hopkins, Pangea) construction, shuttle maintenance, driver wages and insurance, and MTS rider subsidies – all of which total to about $25 million annually.  Meggie revealed to the California Review that the annual revenue brought in by parking passes, pay station passes, and tickets is about $23 million.  This roughly $2 million annual deficit is a huge problem. In talks with Transportation Services, Meggie discovered that the shuttle system was a free-to-ride pilot program that was introduced shortly after UCSD opened for business. The program was so successful that it was permanently implemented, but due to the experimental nature of the program it was not designed to survive as long as it has.

In fact, the free bus pass sticker is just an all-around bad idea. Meggie added that it costs the university $1.16 every time a student steps onto the MTS bus, and with almost 2.5 million bus rides last school year, this adds up.  If the current situation persists, Transportation Services estimates that they will exhaust their reserves in three years and have to close-up shop.

So why not just slightly increase tuition or increase the student activity fees?  Transportation Services is recognized as an auxiliary service by University of California policy, a service that is not allowed to receive funding from the state or directly from student tuition. It is charged with being self-sustaining and, as Adam Powers, student representative to the Transportation Policy Committee, pointed out during an interview with him, “on the surface, this is pro-student; you don’t want tuition funds going to something that resembles more of a commercial entity, or that the entire campus (including staff/faculty) may benefit from. Parking structures definitely fall in that category, so the designation probably made sense at the time.”

But it is hard to see how shuttle services are different from the RIMAC services.  RIMAC is a service used by staff/faculty and even the public.  And yet, the students pay for these services.  In an email correspondence with Dave Koch, Director of Recreation, he indicated that approximately 600,000 students use RIMAC facilities annually, which is a far cry from the two and a half million bus rides taken by students every year.  To add further insult to injury, UCSD is one of the only UCs that operates under such a broken system.  According to Robert Holden, Director of Auxiliary Business Services (which oversees Transportation Services), “Several UC campuses – but not UC San Diego – receive funding through a student transportation fee; those fees can be used to support programs like the current Bus Zone, which is currently self-supporting, but rather, subsidized by Transportation Services.”  Why is UCSD subjecting itself to this ridiculous system?  And just how can such a vital part of student life be labeled an “auxiliary service” and, therefore, not receive funding from their most frequent users?

The most obvious, logical solution is to pass a referendum, which would remove the auxiliary status from Transportation Services, making it eligible to receive a slice of the state/federal funding pie.  Removal of this status would also allow something like a student activity fee increase to cover the costs.  Adam Powers agrees, saying, “It would be a fruitful avenue of inquiry to investigate getting that policy changed.”  In this scenario, the students would continue to have the shuttle system in place and students could opt in or out of the bus zone sticker if they plan to live off campus or leave campus frequently.  This is the most responsible outcome and the incoming Associated Students slate should investigate this further.  It is the student’s responsibility to get to campus.

The other possible solution involves MTS.  Transportation Services could have MTS absorb the shuttle route, as planned in the January announcements, and the students would pay MTS for a quarterly regional pass.  The Transportation Policy Committee (TPC) had been in negotiations with MTS, attempting to secure a discounted bus pass for UCSD students.  Adam Powers and the TPC proposed a yearly, $100 unlimited regional pass. MTS countered with a $51 quarterly pass, which becomes $65 when you add the 29% return-to-aid requirement of a referendum.  This was far too expensive based on information the TPC had gathered from the student body, so the offer was refused.  Following this exchange, negotiations have come to a stand still, which makes sense from the MTS perspective.  They are, no doubt, aware of the trouble Transportation Services is in.  They are protected by the city, so they do not have to worry about any competition for riders as well.  While MTS has generously begun to deploy more buses to the 201, 202 and 204 routes, they know full well that they will get their money, whether TS collapses or not.  After all, students are not going to stop attending class.  There is, quite literally, no incentive for MTS to play ball.  So with the referendum making a pass through the university too expensive, avoiding the university all together is the most efficient option.  Students are free to buy a regional pass through MTS at any time.  It is obvious that the university is incapable of handling this matter.  Best to leave it to the experts.

UCSD needs to get their act together.  Due to the location of our campus, the shuttles and buses are arguably one of the most important resource to the students. There was something notable about The Guardian’s January 24 article, “Changes To Shuttles and Parking Take Effect in July.” Multiple students commented on the article, expressing their anger with the University because their money was being wasted.  One student said, “Yea the bus fees are already included in the tuition, and now we have to pay an extra fee for buses while the tuition still goes up?”  Another said, “The bus zone sticker isn’t currently ‘free’ it’s part of our student fees.”  Most students believe that they are already paying for the shuttles and busses.  We desperately need to pass a referendum to remove the auxiliary status of TS. There is absolutely no reason these services should be free. The students are aware that driver wages and gasoline do not come out of thin air. We have been spoiled since day one when it comes to our transportation needs, but it is time to wake up.  Problems never go away by ignoring them.

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One comment

  1. Brianna Clawson · ·

    I go to a nearby community college and the semester bus pass is $177 usually. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the students to pay for a pass.

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