Imagine having an unlimited-rides pass on all public transit in Connecticut, including Metro-North. Then imagine this pass only cost you $20 a year.
Such is the reality of U-Pass, the transit pass given to almost 15,000 community college and state university students in our state. Not only does U-Pass give them affordable access to mass transit, in some cases the pass is a life changer.
“If I didn’t have U-Pass I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” says 21-year old part-time student Sabrina from Stratford. Sabrina relies on her U-Pass to get her to classes at Norwalk Community College where she’s studying early childhood education.
The daughter of a single mom who doesn’t own a car (and also relies on the bus), Sabrina takes a bus, a train and another bus for her 90-minute one-way commute. She also uses the pass to run personal errands like doctor’s appointments, which is fine with the CDOT and transit operators who devised the U-Pass.
Some students use their U-Pass on the CTFastrak busway system, journeying from campus to downtown to party. Better they be on a bus than on the highway if they’ve had a couple of beers, no?
Created in 2017 as a brainchild of then CDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker, U-Pass costs every student at enrolled schools $20 a year, whether they use the pass or not, though 26% of all students do. Many are first-generation college students coming from homes like Sabrina’s, which rely on public transportation.
U-Pass sales bring CDOT and the transit operators $800,000 a year, far less than the individual rides would cost a la carte.
“U-Pass is a great way of introducing public transportation to the next generation,” says CDOT’s Lisa Rivers. And the response has been phenomenal, enjoying a 47% increase in usage in its second year of operation.
Students just flash their U-Pass and college ID, and they’re on their way. This fall the U-Pass is being redesigned to show the student’s name and school, making the check of that student ID even easier.
U-Pass is honored not only on the bus but the trains, including Metro-North, but only within the state. “If you travel beyond Greenwich to New York City, you pay the local fare,” says Rivers.
Students can also use U-Pass on Shore Line East from New Haven to New London and on the new CTrail Hartford Line trains from New Haven to Hartford. That’s how 20-year-old Daniel Pinto from UConn got to his summer job in New Haven where he was applying his civil engineering studies toward a career. (PS: He says he plans to keep living in Connecticut.)
But the Hartford Line trains, jointly operated by CDOT and Amtrak, have been having problems with U-Pass riders. Though both CDOT and Amtrak tickets can be used on either Amtrak or CTRail trains, Amtrak has been refusing service to U-Pass holders on busy afternoon trains due to a lack of seats. In some cases, U-Pass holders have been kicked off the train so their seats could go to Amtrak riders with reservations.
That’s not supposed to happen and it really speaks to how little Amtrak cares about this line or the service they provide. Their trains have fewer cars than the CTrail trains, the conductors aren’t properly trained and when CDOT complains, Amtrak basically doesn’t listen.
Some have suggested that the U-Pass program be extended to state workers, though Rivers points out that, unlike struggling college students who must often choose between eating and going to school, the state employees get a paycheck… and free parking.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.