U-Pass is Inefficient, So What?

The Editorial Board defends U-Pass, despite its $650k net loss.

By Maroon Editorial Board

Ridership numbers from the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) on the U-Pass program have reignited a campus debate that has been raging since long before most students matriculated. Various Student Government candidates have advocated for the unlimited rides program since as early as 2002, with a 2015 student-body referendum ultimately leading to the program’s implementation last academic year. 

Advocates have said the program is vital because it gives students an incentive to take public transit, and because it makes getting around more accessible for students on financial aid, for whom the $95-per-quarter fee is covered.  

Opponents of the program say they shouldn’t be forced to spend money on a service that is cost-ineffective for them. And now, this side sees the ridership numbers as evidence that the U-Pass program should go: Why are we giving money away to the CTA? 

It would be ideal if there was a solution that would maintain unlimited transit for students while making the program a better deal for the University and for students who pay full tuition. 

One could imagine a system in which the University gives all students Ventra cards that automatically add value whenever the balance drops below some set amount, like $5 or $10. The University would cover the cost for students on financial aid, which would be a smaller expense than the combined quarterly U-Pass fees for financial aid students. Students who pay full tuition would be charged a prorated amount, which would be less than the $95 fee for U-Pass.  

Creating such a system would be a significant logistical undertaking, and there would likely be bureaucratic complications. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether the University has considered working with the CTA to try and create an alternative system along these lines.  

Some opponents have proposed a direct reimbursement system in which the University would reimburse all CTA rides. However, the administrative burdens make this unrealistic: Not only would students be held responsible for tracking each ride and providing evidence of purchase to the University, they would also be required to initially pay costs out-of-pocket. Especially for individuals who have jobs downtown, this could prove prohibitive. 

The new data has made this a slightly more informed debate, but the Maroon Editorial Board believes that the core arguments have not changed. Even though the program is inefficient, it provides a valuable service that cannot be matched by alternative solutions. There’s incentive for students to take more trips around the city in an environmentally friendly way, and students from low-income backgrounds are saving a significant amount of money. Left with the choice between U-Pass or no U-Pass, we think the benefits of the program justify its economic inefficiency. 

Update (5/16): University spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus said on May 15: "I can’t speak to any hypotheticals. Because this initiative was student led and voted for in Student Government, students are welcome to propose new ideas that will benefit the entire student body. The University has already signed the new contract with the CTA, but they are happy to receive input and feedback from students for the future."

Spencer Dembner and Anant Matai recuse due to involvement in prior U-Pass coverage. Co-Editor-in-Chief Euirim Choi recuses because he believes the claim that a U-Pass alternative is infeasible is unsupported.