Thursday, June 17, 2010

Free bus rides on Valley Transit for Appleton students to continue

APPLETON — A pilot project that allowed Appleton middle and high school students to ride Valley Transit buses for free last semester was so successful, it will be back this fall.

The Board of Education's business services panel this week recommended its partnership with Valley Transit continue at least another school year after hearing Deborah Wetter, Valley Transit's general manager, describe the positive impact it has had on ridership.

"The (Fox Cities) Transit Commission is thrilled and has unanimously endorsed doing this another year," she said, adding that the Appleton Common Council is supportive as well.

The Appleton Area School District and Valley Transit embarked on the project as a way to raise ridership, promote the benefits of public transportation in creating a greener culture, and possibly achieve greater efficiency and cost savings in student transportation.

Last semester public and parochial students simply had to show their IDs and ride at no charge anytime the buses operated. Previously they had paid the adult fare of $1.80 per ride.

Wetter told school board members that in the four months of the project students took 38,247 trips on the bus, which averaged 427 trips on each weekday and 140 trips on Saturdays.

There are no numbers to compare to, because students had not been distinguished from adults previously, she said, but based on overall system trip counts there is a large increase in use of Valley Transit by young people. "Absolutely, this has helped us," she said. "We're very interested in continuing that."

She said she had been a little concerned free ridership by students might lower revenues, but that has not happened. "It's our assumption that some of the families who had to pay to use the bus before may be in the lower economic category and they were giving up trips of their own for their kids to go to school."

Don Hietpas, district chief financial officer, said the district will continue to pay Valley Transit $9,000 per semester, which it would have paid anyway for special bus passes and tickets for needy students.

"We're very grateful Valley Transit has found a way to continue the partnership," Hietpas said. "It's been a piece of cake for our side."

Wetter said she sees something of a "cultural change" around appeal of public transportation and some adults' perceptions bus riding is only for "those people. That's a stigma we've been fighting for years." She said based on responses Valley Transit is getting, many of them on its Facebook site, the students are "educating their parents who had negative impressions."

Kathy Walsh Nufer: 920-993-1000, ext. 290, or Post Crescent