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.

Jim Cameron

“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.

Jim Cameron | Columnist

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.

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5 Comments

  1. I’m not against this but this should not just be for college kids. What about a kid who goes to Lincoln tech or another trade school. College is not for everyone and trade school kids should also be extended this.

  2. Excuse me, Jim, exactly how many college students are there “who must often choose between eating and going to school?” If poor students need free transit to get to school, give them a needs-based entitlement. This program seems like a boondoggle for transit bureaucrats so they can goose up ridership figures on unpopular routes. As for not letting Amtrak block free-fare students from near-capacity trains, to save seats to full-fare adults, that is the positively the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard from you or any other transit advocate. Finally — and I know this is not YOUR dumb idea — but the thought that our well-paid and extraordinarily well-pensioned STATE EMPLOYEES should get a free ride is simply astounding. God help us!

  3. One other thing: It’s not quite accurate to say students are paying $20 for the transit pass. It’s included in their mandatory student fees, and per Jim’s report only 26% use the pass, meaning over 3/4 of the students don’t, and likely
    are not even aware they paid for it. It’s another little bit of financial chicanery to benefit government bureaucrats and employees on the public’s nickel.

  4. “Some have suggested that the U-Pass program be extended to state workers” Why would state workers be favored over the rest of the people in the state? Why not offer a $100 monthly pass to everyone? The problem is no one really knows how much our mass transit systems are serving or costing us. Outside prime commuting times, there are untold number of trips with 0 or 1 rider. The press should do an undercover investigation complete with eye-spy video camera glasses…

  5. Not one mention of the ACTUAL cost to taxpayers! I am pretty sure that those college kids who can afford to party at expensive night clubs, bars and restaurants can also afford to pay a reasonable transit fee to do so.

    All entitlements in our state should be means tested and only provided to those that actually need it. Mr. Cameron, have you looked at the state of Connecticut’s balance sheet? On a GAAP basis our state is basically insolvent and borrows money to operate, not just capital investment but actual operations. Wake up.

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