April 17, 2007

U-Pass put to student referendum

[img id="80207" align="alignleft"] Almost a decade after the CTA introduced the U-Pass, a card that provides full-time students unlimited rides on any CTA bus or train during an academic term, U of C students will have an opportunity to vote on whether the school should participate in the program. A non-binding referendum will appear on the ballot in the upcoming Student Government (SG) elections asking voters from across the University to indicate their support for initiating the U-Pass program at the U of C.

The referendum is the result of efforts by the Transportation Student Advisory Board (TSAB), which has been collecting signatures over the past few weeks in support of the initiative. As of Monday evening, about 500 students had signed a petition backing the referendum, said Andrew Stergachis, a fourth-year in the College and chair of the SG Campus Services committee. University officials assume that the TSAB will be able to collect the necessary 700 signatures by the April 24 SG elections and will allow the referendum to be included on the ballot, he said.

In its current form, the referendum summarizes the U-Pass program, outlining the benefits for students and explaining the implementation process. It also addresses the program’s likely cost of around $200 per student, broken down into total expense and the number of trips that would make it cost-effective. After presenting this information, the referendum asks voters whether they support bringing the U-Pass to the U of C and how much they would be willing to pay for it.

The non-binding referendum is meant to be a preliminary step toward implementing the U-Pass at the University. According to Stergachis, there has never been any large-scale attempt to measure student support for the program. “This referendum will allow us to gauge student enthusiasm,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s something that the entire student body wants before moving forward.”

The CTA launched the U-Pass program in 1998 and currently services 42 participating Chicago-area colleges and universities. Students at these schools receive unlimited rides on CTA buses and trains during the academic year, using the U-Pass in place of cash or regular CTA passes.

While the U-Pass program is open to any college in the region, involvement is an all-or-nothing decision. The CTA does not allow students to sign up individually, instead requiring participating schools to purchase passes for every full-time enrollee.

Proponents of the program believe that U of C students would benefit from free access to CTA routes. They note that the U-Pass would make traveling less expensive, saving money for those who regularly take public transportation. In addition, the prospect of unlimited rides would provide an extra incentive for students to use the CTA, encouraging them to leave Hyde Park and visit less familiar areas of the city.

“The U-Pass would greatly improve the amount of students who left campus and the places that they went to,” said first-year Mauriece Dawson. “With a U-Pass, students who really want to travel have a much wider array of options available to them.”

Opponents, however, point to the cost of the U-Pass, arguing that the program is too expensive to justify for most students. At $200 per year, a user would have to make an average of 1.5 round trips on the CTA each week for the U-Pass to be cheaper than the regular fare. Given the busy schedules and social characteristics of U of C students, this high level of use may be unrealistic, critics argue.

The University remains officially neutral on the idea of participating, according to Charles Stephen Thompson, a second-year in the College who co-chairs the TSAB. He said TSAB members have met with University administrators and officials from the CTA to discuss the feasibility of the U-Pass program.

Brian Shaw, director of Campus Transportation and Parking Services, expressed little enthusiasm for the program, noting that the lack of commuter students and distance from El lines make the U of C less in need of the U-Pass. Still, “if the university were to participate in the program, Transportation and Parking would help with the administrative [issues] and logistics involved,” he said.

In addition to giving SG and University administrators an idea of the demand for the U-Pass on campus, the referendum will show how this demand varies among University divisions, such as the College, the Law School, and the GSB. Since each division counts as a separate school, a high level of support could lead any individual division to implement the program for its own students.

If the referendum shows overwhelming interest in the U-Pass, TSAB members will meet with University officials to discuss initiating the program, perhaps as soon as next fall. According to Stergachis, funding the U-Pass will remain the biggest problem. Possible solutions include increasing the student activities fee, adding a separate U-Pass fee, or reallocating current University resources. Any of these options would probably encounter some resistance.

Strong support from the referendum, however, would likely make this task a bit easier. “As long as students were willing to pick up the tab, I don’t foresee any problems,” Thompson said.