by Katherine Westmoreland and Grayce Bentley
Our region prides itself on sustainability, ideally a harmonious balance between economic vitality, environmental health and social equity. In order to meet our sustainability challenges for the coming decades, we need the commitment and innovation to support a permanent Youth Pass transit program for all middle and high school students throughout the tri-county region.
One of the legacies of Sisters in Action for Power, a dynamic nonprofit that empowered young women of color, was the adoption of a transit pass policy in 2000 for Portland Public School students on free- and reduced-lunch programs. By retiring its “yellow bus” fleet, PPS provided free TriMet passes to over 2,500 low-income students at a cost of approximately $800,000 per year. In 2005, the Multnomah Youth Commission advocated for the creation of YouthPass, and both Mayors Potter and Adams supported using the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) program to expand the program to over 13,000 PPS high-school students.
Unfortunately, the BETC is under attack in the Oregon Legislature, and the funding source for YouthPass is almost certain to disappear. OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and the MYC are renewing community efforts to advocate for a permanent YouthPass program, and call upon the Legislature to find a stop-gap solution to ensure that the current program is preserved. From a triple-bottom line perspective, the cost of not supporting YouthPass is too great to ignore.
Economics. School districts are required to provide bus service to students living beyond 1.5 miles of their school. The Oregon Department of Education then reimburses districts for 70% of these costs from the State School Fund. It will cost PPS $6 million to provide bus service to its 7,500 high school students living more than 1.5 miles from schools, costing taxpayers $4.2 million. Under the current BETC, the public cost of providing transit passes to all 13,000 students is $3.5 million, saving taxpayers $700,000 per year. Beyond raw cost-benefit, YouthPass has positive impacts for our regional economy. It allows students to attend schools of their choosing, including community college courses, and serves as an important educational and workforce development tool. Funding YouthPass makes simple economic sense.
Environment. The Portland Metro region is facing an air toxics crisis, with many known air toxics exceeding health-based benchmarks, primarily from (on-road gasoline) transportation. It is no surprise that transportation emissions are greatest in freeway corridors where low-income families and people of color live in greater numbers, perpetuating an environmental injustice and health inequity. Transportation is also the leading cause of our state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Taking yellow buses off the road and capitalizing on existing public transit will help stem the tide of air toxics. Providing youth with the necessary incentives to embrace public transit as a viable commuting and lifestyle option – creating transit riders of the future – is the type of structural shift we need to combat climate change. Funding YouthPass is critical from an environmental stewardship and health perspective.
Social Equity. YouthPass promotes equal access to opportunities for positive health outcomes for our students. Transit connects students to education, jobs, housing, healthy food options, social services and recreation. YouthPass means that, regardless of where you live, the color of your skin, or how much money your family has, you have the freedom of mobility and opportunity. According to a 2009 PPS survey, only 44% of students used TriMet to get to school prior to YouthPass, versus 80% that used TriMet frequently or everyday once the YouthPass program was established. Ridership is highest in schools serving the most low-income students of color where transit options are fewest. Funding YouthPass reinforces our commitment to social equity.
As we make difficult but necessary budget choices now and into the future, we must closely examine our values and consider the widespread benefits of YouthPass. Contact your legislators to demand that YouthPass be fully-funded. It saves the state money, it promotes environmental health and can make the difference between a student’s success or failure. Contact OPAL organizer Grayce Bentley at (971) 277-9058 or email@example.com to get involved, and stay current on Youth Pass events via OPAL’s website and Facebook: www.opalpdx.org // http://www.facebook.com/opalpdx.
OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon is a 501(c)(3) intercultural grassroots nonprofit empowering working class communities and people of color to promote environmental and social justice. Environmental justice is the equal protection and opportunity for meaningful involvement for all people, without regard to age, race, ethnicity or income, in communities where we live, work, play and pray.
The Multnomah Youth Commission is the official youth policy body for both Multnomah County and the City of Portland, consisting of a group of young people, ages 13-21, that strive to provide a youth voice in the County & City’s planning and policy work.