A new program that allows students at 16 state universities and community colleges to take unlimited train and bus rides for a small fee paid to their university could be a boon for transit riders throughout Connecticut.
The Connecticut State College and Universities have teamed up with the state Department of Transportation to offer students the U-Pass CT, which provides unlimited bus and train rides for a fee of $20 a semester. The fee is part of the tuition and fees students already pay to attend school. Students at participating campuses started paying the fee this August, whether they use their bus pass or not.
CSCU President Mark OJakian said during a press event at Gateway Community College Monday that over his two-year tenure at the helm of the state’s university system he has heard most consistently that the cost of books and the cost of transportation can thwart access to an advanced education.
He said the cost of books is being addressed with a new bookstore contract that will significantly lower the price of textbooks. He said the U-Pass responds to some of the transportation challenges that students face.
“They’re able to ride the bus or the train anywhere except into New York on Thursday night,” he said of the U-Pass.
Ojakian said so far 63,000 students at 11 campuses in the CSCU system have signed up for the U-Pass. Students are being encouraged to sign up for the service. He said not all CSCU campuses are incurring the fee because they don’t yet have the bus or train access to justify it.
State DOT Commissioner Jim Redeker said that could change, and it would partly be because of the revenue that the fees will generate over time.
“It’s a bit of a miracle,” he said of the fee structure and its ripple effect for transit all over the state. “Each of the students pays something for transportation, even those who don’t use it in many ways. It generates resources that we can put back into services.”
Redeker said this is happening at the same time that the state is studying its current bus services with the goal of establishing a route within a half-mile of every urbanized area residences.
That means the fees that students pay will give them the benefit of low-cost transportation while simultaneously generating an income for the state’s transit system. That in turn allows that transportation to craft better bus routes.Those improvements wouldn’t benefit just students at far flung campuses that don’t currently get good service, but also riders in cities like New Haven that have been pushing for more efficient service, he said.
Redeker said he also sees the U-Pass program as an opportunity to cultivate millennials into “transit riders of the future.”
“It’s an opportunity to essentially provide transportation for people who needed it and education is a logical place for that,” he said. “There’s a huge need to create a new generation of transit riders—of green riders—who don’t need to drive.”
In the first six weeks, 90,000 students subscribed to U-Pass across the 16 colleges and universities, that includes the 63,000 students at the 11 campuses of the CSCU system. A new bus route created to ferry University of Connecticut Storrs students to and from Hartford has seen an increase in ridership double from a couple hundred a day.
“It’s a terrific partnership,” Redeker said.
Paul Broadie, Gateway Community College’s president, said that the U-Pass will benefit the 7,000-plus students who attend the school, one-third of whom commute by bus or rail.
“Some of those students face barriers, barriers to access and barriers to being able to afford transportation to get to the college,” he said. “This program helps to overcome those obstacles in addressing the significant cost of transportation for our students and removes the barrier that transportation provides. This initiative is also impactful across the state of Connecticut and at the same time make us all a little greener.”
Joe Bertolino, president of Southern Connecticut State University, said that the U-Pass has been life-changing for his students because a number of them take the train to get back and forth to school as well as to internships.
“We hope that it will help increase the interest in Gateway and Southern,” he said.