Sacramento students ride free in popular RT program. With city in budget hole, how long will that last? (2024)

Sacramento students ride free in popular RT program. With city in budget hole, how long will that last?

The innovative RydeFreeRT free-fare program has dramatically boosted bus and light rail ridership and school attendance, especially among Black students and other students of color, since its 2019 debut.

May 15, 2024

By Darrell Smith | Sacramento Bee (TNS)

SACRAMENTO — A pioneering program that has carried thousands of Sacramento students on public transit and into city classrooms for free is being considered for the chopping block — a potential casualty of a tough-choices budget proposal to pare down the city’s $66 million deficit.

The innovative RydeFreeRT free fare program has dramatically boosted bus and light rail ridership and school attendance especially among Black students and other students of color since its 2019 debut.

But, now, families, school leaders, education and youth advocates fear the potential loss of the popular program could take away a vital lifeline to Sacramento schools, work, venues and activities from the students and families who benefited the most.

“It absolutely will affect Black and brown students, students of color,” said Jasjit Singh, Sacramento City Unified School Board vice president. “There’s a huge equity angle that’s being missed by the city council.”

The cuts proposed by City Manager Howard Chan would include ending Sacramento’s $1 million annual investment in RydeFreeRT funded by a city Measure U tax increase approved in 2018.

The proposed spending plan also includes fee increases for several city Youth, Parks and Community Enrichment programs. Sports field rentals, swim programs, covered picnic park areas and room rentals at community centers would also see fee hikes.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, an early and ardent RydeFree supporter, emphatically defended the program at last week’s city council meeting.

“It’s providing, obviously, access to not just transportation but to employment and school and independence for so many young Sacramentans,” Steinberg said. “The question is not whether or not we keep it — the question is who pays for it?”

Steinberg said he and Chan will meet with Sacramento Regional Transit and Sacramento City Unified leaders to discuss the program’s future.

A first-in-the-nation program increased ridership

RydeFreeRT was the first program of its kind in the nation to make free transit available to youth from transitional kindergartners to high school seniors, home-schooled students, foster and homeless youth when it debuted in 2019.

The program is available for youth who live or go to school within SacRT’s service area, which also includes Elk Grove, Folsom, Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova and parts of Sacramento County. Schools distribute RydeFreeRT cards to students each school year.

The program would signal a dramatic change in the way Sacramento youth used mass transit.

SacRT once had one of the highest student pass prices in the nation at $55 per month before the rate was slashed to $20 per month in 2017. Even with the sharp fee reduction, absenteeism in Sacramento schools was at troubling levels. Transportation was a major barrier to attendance.

Sacramento city leaders soon hailed RydeFree as a groundbreaking experiment to turn that around, make Sacramento more accessible to more young people and lessen the burden on financially stressed families.

The results quickly showed the boast wasn’t hyperbole. Black students and students from lower-income families were especially frequent users, a 2021 University of Texas study found, with significantly more students overall using RT to get to and from school, work and after-school activities.

“One of our top priorities … is offering more opportunities for young people,” Steinberg said in pre-pandemic 2020. “Having a free transit pass makes it easier to get to that paid internship, to that sports practice or that after-school program. It’s amazing to see so many students take advantage of their new freedom to move around the Sacramento region.”

By 2023, RydeFreeRT student ridership reached 3.4 million, double the ridership of 2019 before the pandemic.

“The RydeFreeRT program has been instrumental in shaping transportation equity in Sacramento, particularly benefiting students,” said Darryl White, chair of Sacramento education equity advocates Black Parallel School Board. “If the city were to cut this program, the consequences for students could be profound.”

Today, student ridership accounts for more than a quarter of all Sacramento Regional Transit rides on bus and light rail, up from 8% before RydeFree was launched.

The percentage is even higher at some Sacramento City Unified School District campuses, where more than one in three students rely on Regional Transit, district spokesman Brian Heap said.

“RydeFreeRT is incredibly important to us and fills a transportation gap for thousands of students and their families in our district,” Heap said in a statement. “We have some middle and high schools where as many as one-third of students rely on SacRT buses and light rail trains to safely get them to and from school each day.”

For those Sacramento households without a car — disproportionately those in the city’s communities of color — it would add yet another challenge.

For cash-strapped families in Sacramento’s working class neighborhoods juggling bus fares and a costly daily commute, RydeFree’s end would add one more worry, say advocates.

“It’s worrisome,” said Shuntae Campbell, a site coordinator for Pacers Moving Forward, an after-school college preparatory program at Grant Union High School in Del Paso Heights. “Parents and students across the board are very concerned. If kids and parents couldn’t afford it before the program started, what makes you think they can afford it now?”

©2024 The Sacramento Bee


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sacramento students ride free in popular RT program. With city in budget hole, how long will that last? (2024)
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