Last Tuesday, Student Government (SG) announced that the College will participate in the CTA’s U-Pass program during the 2016–2017 school year. Students will pay $250 a year to receive unlimited bus and rail rides as long as they qualify as full-time students. The College was originally supposed to begin participation in the U-Pass program this upcoming year, but the start date has been pushed back due to budgeting issues.
Discussion of joining the 47 schools who already participate in the CTA program extends back to 2002, when an SG party claimed to be the only group to support the program. Proposals and rejections of U-Pass appear every year in SG platforms. In 2014, some candidates proposed passing U-Pass with key modifications. Some wanted an option to “opt out” of the program and others only wanted to pass the program if the University internally covered the cost for all students. Others called for a wholesale rejection. SG President and candidate Tyler Kissinger announced Tuesday first on SG's website and Facebook page the final approval of U-Pass.
Majority support for U-Pass was indicated by a two-day February referendum: Half the College voted, with 55 percent in favor of the program. According to Kissinger, students interested in transportation were more likely to participate. The positive wording of the question ("do you support the participation of your school in...’) may have biased voters as well.
The support, if not entirely representative, is not new. In a 2014 spring referendum, 69 percent of students voted in favor of the joining the program. In 2007 the student population generated more than 700 signatures to put U-Pass on the ballot, and pushed for a non-binding referendum that passed by 200 votes. Past efforts were shot down: University administrators claimed the cost was too high a burden to impart on individual students and rejected the proposals.
Supporters of the program see the U-Pass as incentive to explore Chicago in depth. Students who go downtown frequently say it will relieve the strain of limiting visits. First-year Luke Clohisy stated, “I go to local DIY shows so the U-Pass [will be] extremely useful. CTA can get annoyingly expensive and sometimes I'm worried about whether or not the change in my pocket will cover a train ride. U-Pass will take that worry away.”
Others specifically highlight the social benefits of providing incentive to venture outside Hyde Park. Fourth-year Hamid Bendaas commented, “As I see it, U-Pass isn't about paying $85 a quarter nor not; it's about people who are uncomfortable with our insularity being the norm and people who like things as they are. I think a lot of students are genuinely afraid of the people they are around on public transportation the few times they take it. That's a huge problem.”
According to survey data, students claim they will ride the CTA an average of five times a week ($11.25) with a U-Pass, and a median of four times ($9). Surveys on current CTA activity return averages of three rides per week, though it is unclear if the number includes 170s transactions (170, 171, and 172, which are not to be affected by the U-Pass approval), which students take to get around Hyde Park.
In the 2010 rally for U-Pass approval, participating students highlighted the perpetual rise in tuition costs, and favored the pass as a worthwhile addition.
“Mr. Zimmer, just add it to my tuition. Hell, you’re going to raise it anyway,” wrote Steve Saltarelli in a Viewpoints article. He added that the CTA is a critical resource that supports the city’s least wealthy residents.
Critics cite the financial burden and the unrealistic nature of the program as reasons for opting out. “U of C doesn’t need the U-Pass because students don’t ride the bus often. Everything we need is in Hyde Park. It’s a lot cheaper to just pay for CTA only when we need it,” one student commented in accordance with speakers before her.
The University promises to cover the cost for families receiving financial aid, which a 2012/2013 statistic claims is 61 percent of all undergraduates (3,435/5,703). This amounts to half the program cost. The other half of the student population will pay the additional fee themselves. Some students paying their own way foresee it a financial burden. As one student pointed out, the U-Pass is inactive during a critical period, the summer. “I generally budget less than $20 for transportation during the school year: the summer, when I work full time, is the only time I would need or be able to actually afford the U-Pass.”