High school students in Portland have secured free transportation through the TriMet YouthPass until the end of this school year.
That's thanks to a deal inked this week between Portland Public Schools, TriMet and the City of Portland, that will cover the program's $675,000 shortfall.
Still, the future of the program remains unclear, despite hopes that it will be extended to students in East County and across the metro region.
Multnomah Youth Commission organized support for the YouthPass, sending a letter out to school principals Nov. 27.
"We had an overwhelming response," says Todd Diskin, the mayor's youth engagement co-coordinator, who works with the youth commission.
"I received 250 emails to my office, from people in the community. They were from students, parents, and teachers. That spoke to the immediacy of the need. People really responded to this and told us it is very important."
The youth commission wants the program extended to every middle and high-school in the Portland-metro region. A 2009 survey showed that 80 percent of the 13,000 students who have a YouthPass use it almost daily. Students use the pass to get to school, to take part in sports and activities, to meet friends and to travel to jobs.
"I really need a bus pass," says Nick Cruz, a student at Open Meadow High School. "It's how I get to and from school every day, and it's how I get to the places I need to get to, and back home. If you take away my bus pass you're essentially making me stay at home the entire time."
Schools with higher numbers of students of color and low-income students use the pass more, suggesting it contributes to leveling the playing field for disadvantaged teens.
"It's very important, particularly when students are moving, not just with gentrification but also because of school closures," says Jon Oster of the environmental justice group OPAL. "With Marshall High School closing, those students are now traveling further to get to Madison or Franklin. It's critical for youth."
Marci Jackson, a working parent, said transportation expenses put financial stress on many parents.
"I have three to buy, so that's $75 a month just to help me get kids to and from school, and to and from activities," she said. "That's pretty expensive for parents."
When it was created, the YouthPass was funded through Oregon's Business Energy Tax Credit program. But last June, the Oregon Legislature decided to sunset that funding at the end of 2011.
Under the new deal, the gap will be closed this year using:
$375,000 in discounts from TriMet, amounting to a 10 percent YouthPass discount for the entire year;
$75,000 from Portland Public Schools budget, and;
$225,000 from the City of Portland budget.
The total cost of the YouthPass program is $1,645,000.
Diskin says he understands why the tax credit program is not the best way to fund it, but he says the program is far cheaper than using a yellow bus system to transport high schoolers, and it offers many more benefits to youth, families and the community.
The state would have to reimburse 70 percent of the costs of those buses, which total about $6 million, Diskin said.
"I do think it is the responsibility of our state to think about meeting the needs of young people, and that includes transportation."
Advocates say the YouthPass not only supports families, it helps reduce traffic congestion around neighborhood schools, lowers carbon emissions – which helps Portland's Climate Action Plan – and introduces the next generation to public transit.
Shani Josefina Plunkett-de la Cruz, a junior at Roosevelt High School, and a Multnomah Youth Commissioner, is one of the teens who advocated for continuing the YouthPass.
"Many students in my school alone have no other option. They depend on the bus pass and for some, without it, they would not be able to get to school at all," she said. "My mom works two jobs, so she doesn't have time to drive me everywhere I need to be. With the YouthPass, I can travel to and from extracurricular activities such as sports, or the Multnomah Youth Commission."
Diskin says the Youth Commission has told city staff it is committed to continuing the fight to secure sustainable funding for the program.
"What we're looking at is what's next," he said. "Everyone is still really invested."