UC Students Lose Their Bus Pass; Bus Riders Left Out of the Conversation

By Isaac Smith for the Better Bus Coalition

  • University of Cincinnati cancels UC Metro Card, killing unlimited rides program for students, faculty, and staff
  • UC officials told the Enquirer and News Record the cut gave the school increased flexibility to fund the Bearcat Transportation System
  • Public records indicate that the program cut was to fill a budget hole caused by cost overruns in operating a shuttle to UC’s Blue Ash campus
  • Even with the elimination of the UC Metro Card, the Bearcat Transportation System will see funding cuts and service reductions
  • Bus riders were given no advance notice of the card’s elimination as negotiations with SORTA were conducted without public input

As the start of the new school year approached at the University of Cincinnati, students interested in applying for their semester bus pass through the UC*Metro program were greeted with an unfriendly message: “Registration for Fall Semester 2017 is suspended pending the outcome of negotiations between UC and Metro; the future status of the program is unknown at this time.”

To frequent UC-affiliated Metro riders, this was bad news. For five years, UC and Metro had partnered to provide students with two options to get around Greater Cincinnati without a car. The first was the UC Metro Card, which cost $53 per semester for students and $160 per semester for faculty and staff, and gave the holder unlimited rides within Zone 1. The other option was the EZ Ride Card, which was free, but lowered the fare anywhere Metro goes from $1.75 to $1.00, with $0.50 transfers.

Thousands of students, faculty, and staff relied on these programs to get to and from class, jobs, internships, co-ops, and anywhere else they needed to go. In mid-August, all those riders were left wondering: what happened to my bus pass?

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On August 17, an incomplete answer arrived. The UC Metro Card was no more. Going forward, the only option available to students and employees would be the EZ Ride Card. For a student who rides the bus to and from class every weekday and who does not have to transfer, the elimination of the UC Metro Card nearly triples transportation costs for a semester. For a student who uses the bus for more than trips to and from class, or who needs to transfer, that cost increase only gets bigger.

UC students, however, received almost no notice that this program was going to change. The Thursday before classes in Fall 2017 was the first time that bus riders were sent any notification at all that they would lose their unlimited rides pass.

The elimination of the UC Metro card is not entirely unexpected. In 2005, Metro and UC tested a program that would give students the ability to ride any Metro bus for free by showing their student ID card. The test was successful, and in 2007, the program launched. The cost to UC was $150,000; half of that cost came from the school, and the remaining half was paid by the student government. In 2009, it was expanded to provide free rides to students, faculty, and staff, at a cost to the university of around $250,000. That was the only expansion.

When UC shifted from quarters to semesters in 2012, the free rides went away. Instead, students could pay $53 for a semester of unlimited rides, and employees could pay $160. The cost to the university remained $250,000, but also gave students who did not ride the bus as frequently the option of the EZ Ride Card. The 2012 agreement remained in effect until this year, when the UC Metro Card was eliminated.

Since the 2009 expansion, renegotiation of the contract between UC and Metro has only led to less access for UC-affiliated bus riders.

The recent program changes betray a university saying one thing in public and doing another thing in private. In 2016, UC issued new student ID cards, which contained a contactless chip embedded in the card. At the time the new ID cards were issued, students were informed that it was a transit tie-in: it would effectively replace the red and black bus passes currently given to students, depending upon the plan selected. Instead of needing a separate pass, students could do what they did during the pilot program yet again: ride the bus using only their student ID. The company that produced the ID cards even bragged about the transit tie-in on its website.

The same year, the Board of Trustees voted to keep the College of Law on the main campus, instead of moving it to The Banks, as had been proposed. The school recently decided to relocate the law school to the building that currently houses the Lindner College of Business. Construction to change the building so it suits the law school is set to begin in 2019. But one reason given for keeping the law school uptown—away from the firms and courthouses where students get jobs, internships, and externships—was that students could easily use the UC Metro Card to ride Cincinnati Metro’s many bus lines downtown.

Now 2018, the transit tie-in remains unused, and law students are feeling misled. They are not alone, either—the Southwest Ohio Transit Authority, or SORTA, which operates Metro buses, was not expecting the delay in notification. A public records request submitted to SORTA for emails regarding the UC*Metro program reveals a transit agency doing all it can to keep the program alive with a limited budget, and a university hiding the ball.

“The origin of the delay is with UC,” SORTA Director of Marketing and Communications Dave Etienne wrote to another employee in an internal email provided in response to the records request, “but that is probably moot since it is the students and staff who will suffer.” In other emails, Etienne expressed concern that UC’s delays in responding to SORTA’s attempt to negotiate to keep the program intact were intended to make SORTA, and not UC, look bad.

In May of 2017, however, SORTA was the source of the delay. UC Associate Vice President of Facilities Management Joe Harrell sent several emails to SORTA employees asking for an update on what price point SORTA would agree to for offering the program at a reduced cost. Initially, SORTA had offered a price of $80,000 per year to offer only the EZ Ride Card to only students. SORTA then proposed $151,000 for offering only the EZ Ride Card to students, faculty, and staff. Harrell initially asked for an update on May 16, saying “a lot of people are asking me about the status of this program.” On the May 22, SORTA responded, offering $80,000. It was not until June that SORTA offered the $151,000 that pays for the program as it exists today.

A meeting held by a UC committee about the UC*Metro program on July 13, 2017, appears to be pivotal. A similar records request submitted to UC reveals that the cause of the program’s alteration may not have been an attempt to redirect $100,000 to beef up UC’s own shuttle service, as the school had suggested, but to cover a budget deficit from operating a shuttle to UC’s Blue Ash campus.

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“We are about $100,000 in the hole for the Blue Ash shuttle, and we spend about $75,000 more on other transportation costs than we receive in revenue for a total deficit of $175,000,” Harrell wrote in an email the morning of July 13, discussing the recommendations that came of the morning’s meeting. Rather than expanding campus shuttle service, the $99,000 saved from the elimination of the UC Metro Card would plug the hole left by operating the UC Blue Ash shuttle. To make up for the remaining $75,000, UC shuttle service would be reduced as well, eliminating late night shuttles, and replacing them with Night Ride service, which offers UC students a free ride on-demand to destinations within one mile of campus.

The numbers, however, do not seem to add up. UC admitted it received “a large benefit from this program,” referring to offering the red UC Metro Card, which may be why a SORTA employee “didn’t seem disappointed when we told him we were thinking of not renewing the program.” Despite the apparent lack of disappointment, emails between SORTA employees and UC employees show SORTA continuing to offer both the EZ Ride Card and the UC Metro Card at the same price of $250,000.

Nowhere in the records that were received does either SORTA or UC discuss raising the cost of the discount card to cover the budget gap. The email sent after the July 13 meeting was not sent to any students; UC was not able to provide a list of who was present at the meeting, or even what committee met, but it does not appear that any student input was solicited regarding the discontinuation of half of the UC*Metro program. Instead, UC and Metro assumed that with the unlimited rides pass eliminated, those who had elected to purchase that pass would instead elect to receive the free EZ Ride Card and pay $1.00 per ride.

Raising the cost of the card, however, could have allowed the program to continue at reduced cost to UC. Although it would have meant nearly doubling the cost of the pass, a $95 per semester pass for students—assuming the number of students purchasing the pass remained the same, and did not continue to fall, as had happened in recent years—would have raised enough money for Metro to get the $99,000 it needed to continue offering the program while allowing UC to cover the deficit it was running on its shuttle program.

But with a pass not well advertised and no student input seemingly solicited, that possibility did not play out. Instead, students are left with costs tripled, rather than doubled or kept the same, and have lost the convenience of having to swipe only one card to get on the bus.

As a result of its ease and convenience, students with the UC Metro Card took far more rides than their EZ Ride Card-holding counterparts: students who had access to unlimited rides took an average of 83 rides in 2016, while students who had the EZ Ride Card and had to pay per trip took only 15 rides. Faculty and staff rides were similarly split between the UC Metro Card and the EZ Ride Card, with staff members who paid for the unlimited rides card taking 133 trips, and those using the free card taking only an average of 27.

Contracts were finalized in early August of last year, at which point the origin of the delay was, according to internal SORTA emails, no longer with SORTA but with UC. By early August, both agencies had agreed to a contract providing only the EZ Ride Card to students, faculty, and staff for $151,000. All that needed to happen was both the SORTA board and the UC Board of Trustees needed to vote to approve it. Those votes did not come until the middle of the month, resulting in the delay in notifying students about the future of the program.

What will happen going forward remains uncertain. Unlike in years past, the contract to which both parties agreed in August of this year is not for three years, but for one year, with a one- or two-year renewal option. Perhaps with some student input the UC Metro Card will return at a higher price, and with more advertising. At a Better Bus Coalition event held at Clifton Market earlier this semester, many of the UC students who approached the Better Bus Coalition table were not even aware that the UC*Metro program even existed. If the program’s recent trajectory is any indication, however, further cuts to both the UC*Metro program and UC’s shuttle service may be down the road.

You can read the public records at the following links. The documents are also embedded below.

Public records request to SORTA: File 1, File 2, File 3, File 4

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