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Thursday, December 6, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

Capital Metro votes kids ride free, forever

Looking at the 120,000 annual service hours added with Cap Remap this summer or at the major upcoming investments between Project Connect and a fully electric bus fleet, we might expect Capital Metro to be squeezing every possible penny out of its riders in order to pay for it all. Instead, the transportation agency appears to be most interested in boosting ridership by keeping fares where they’ve been for several years – and even getting rid of fares for a significant portion of the population.

A Kids Ride Free pilot program this summer was part of a larger effort to attract riders with late-night weekend rail service and free rides for students in grades K-12. When the summer program expired in late September, Capital Metro pushed the expiration date for free student fares back to Dec. 10, with some discussion about adopting the fare structure when the pilot ended. On Wednesday afternoon, by a unanimous vote from the agency’s board of directors, fares for K-12 students and MetroAccess riders under the age of 19 were permanently eliminated on all Capital Metro services.

Chair Wade Cooper echoed his own convictions, expressed at previous board meetings, that the program provides remarkable benefits to the entire community and represents the highest ideal of Capital Metro’s purpose. “Though perhaps I’d want to think of myself as a budget hawk, it seems to me this is as good a place as any for us to pull back our revenue requirement and see what good we can provide,” said Cooper.

From another perspective, investing in young riders may significantly contribute to the long-term stability of the agency as students graduate and have the option to continue using the service at full cost. As Council Member Delia Garza told her fellow board members, this is also an effort to create transit riders for the future. “As our city grows, we cannot continue to use single-occupancy vehicles, and I think it’s great that we get them young and riding the bus and hopefully continuing to ride the bus,” Garza said.

Some members of the community and board members alike voiced concern that the program could be taken advantage of by those who are no longer in school. Local transportation advocate Zenobia Joseph disapproved of the program in part due to its vulnerability to abuse. “My opposition is largely because of the revenue loss, and secondly because there is no safeguard as it relates to the ID,” said Joseph. According to Joseph, operators are prohibited from asking for identification and are therefore unable to verify claims of school enrollment.

This issue is not, however, unique to the free student fare program. Prior to the summer service pilot, K-12 students rode Capital Metro services at a generous 50 percent discount, equally vulnerable to fraud.

CEO Randy Clarke used the discussion as an opportunity to talk about his vision for an account-based payment system that will function either through an app or a card that will streamline payments across all Capital Metro services. The new payment system will supposedly function via personal accounts in which students will verify their enrollment status in order to take advantage of the free fares.

In the meantime, students will need to show a school ID to ride for free. For students who are not provided a student ID by their school, Capital Metro will provide customers with a student identification card at its downtown Transit Store at 209 W. Ninth St. upon presentation of a birth certificate and evidence of school enrollment.

Among other objections to free student fares was a common concern about the wisdom of sacrificing the estimated $250,000-$300,000 in annual revenues when service is still lacking in many areas of the city. Emily Sawyer, who spoke at the public hearing, said, “Free rides matter little if there aren’t buses where our communities need them.”

The board agreed that it would need to make up for the lost revenue in order to continue providing its current services and potentially expand service to new areas. With this goal in mind, the board also unanimously passed a resolution to request that City Council make amendments to its City Code of Ordinances, Chapter 25-10 – Sign Regulations, which currently prohibits the use of advertisements at bus stops and transit facilities.

City Council members Garza, Pio Renteria and Ann Kitchen, all members of the Capital Metro board, expressed confidence that their colleagues at City Hall would agree to support the free student fare structure by amending the advertising ordinance.

In celebration, a press conference will be held at Fulmore Middle School on Thursday, Dec. 6, at 10:15 a.m.

Photo by Basile Morin [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

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