Cherriots buses will charge less for area youth to use their buses. Officials hope it will increase student ridership. (KEIZERTIMES/File Photo)

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Area youth will be able to ride a Cherriots bus at a lower fare through August.

The Salem-Keizer Transit Board of Directors approved last week an experiment that lowers rates for passengers under age 18.  Cash fares and Cherricards will stay the same, but day, month, summer and annual pass rates would all go down. Day passes would fall from $2.50 to $1.50, monthly would decline from $28 to $15 and summer passes would go from $40 to $30. The fares would go down in March and stay there through August 31.

A pilot program from spring 2009 allowed Salem-Keizer School District students to use their student ID to ride the bus for free. Business Energy Tax Credits from the state bankrolled the pilot program.

For local teens and Salem-Keizer Transit it was a win-win: Students got to their destination for free, and the transit district was reimbursed funds – nearly $900,000 a year. The program was so successful they had a new problem: During peak hours, the buses were so full that some riders had to wait for the next one.

One out of three riders on a Cherriots bus were students when the Oregon Legislature voted to end the program last year.

And when the money dried up, so did youth ridership, according to a staff report from Steve Dickey, director of transportation development for SKT. The added youth ridership helped offset loss of riders after SKT reorganized its route system in 2009. Those changes added more buses on popular routes while eliminating other stops, which also affected transfers, Dickey wrote.

It also had a profound impact on students in alternative schooling programs or involved in after-school activities, several people said. It caught the attention of Jason Virnig, an Eastern Oregon University student tasked with a class assignment to testify on a particular subject.

He chose how the end of the free student pass program hit students attending classes through Roberts High School, one of the district’s alternative schools.

“Most kids expelled from a school have truancy issues to begin with, and this allowed them to get to and from school,” Virnig said. In fact, the school raised funds to help students buy bus passes, he said.

Dana Herman, a special programs instructional assistant II at Roberts High School, said most students there are eligible for free and reduce lunches, and that coming up with bus fare is a real hardship.

“It would make such a tremendous difference in our attendance,” Herman said.

Alison Kelley, director of Marion County’s Children and Families Department, said restoring such a program would bring a huge return on investment.

“Lack of affordable transportation options represents a persistent barrier that many groups and agencies have identified,” Kelley said.

Dickey stated the district is currently working towards a systemwide fare restructuring that could go into effect at the end of August.

Kate Tarter, who represents part of Keizer and north Salem, said the option is a good compromise, as there was concern that free riders would be bumping off paid fares.

“We’ve had an outcry from the public, and by all means I think our board wants to help youth, but we don’t want to do that at the expense of paid riders,” Tarter said. “We’re trying to strike a balance.”

And Ron Christopher, who represents the rest of Keizer, would like to see the move taken a step further.

“I’m a definite proponent of making it easier for some of the more disadvantaged kids to ride a bus,” Christopher said. “If that means offering a free service and the district can support it through grants or other funding, I’m in favor of that.”