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UW overpays transit agencies in U-PASS contract

Photo by Hillary Kirby

A gap between projected use of the U-PASS and actual ridership left UW paying for more than 800,000 extra rides during autumn quarter.

Data released after the quarter showed UW Transportation Services overestimated transit ridership at agencies by approximately 25 percent. King County Metro was overestimated by more than 700,000 and Sound Transit by nearly 100,000.

Ridership is estimated based on the distributions of passes to UW students, faculty, and staff. However, the report does not state whether the difference in ridership originates from students or faculty.

The source of the gap will be determined by a report released this summer. By determining whether it is students or faculty and staff underusing the U-PASS, the UW will be able to look at potential solutions.

Bill Dow, ASUW director of policy and procedures, said he was concerned about the money lost to transit services but the Transportation Services Advisory Board could not evaluate the report without seeing where the gap originates.

Once the report is released, Dow said they will monitor the situation to determine how to react. However, any reaction will be delayed until the end of next school year. A two-year contract between the UW and transit agencies allows little room for negotiation of student rates.

The same two-year contract locked in the current U-PASS rate against future increases. Melanie Mayock, GPSS secretary, said such a contract is beneficial to the community.

“Even though the projections were off a little bit, it is still a very good deal per student,” Mayock said.

Josh Kavanagh, director of Transportation Services, said these numbers are very premature. Overall, the UW is still benefiting from the program.

“We have a very competitive cost per ride so the program continues to be a very good value,” he said. “This last year we expanded the ability to access transit to 13,000 more students and in doing that we cut the price for students by 23 percent.”

Kavanagh said overestimating actually benefits the UW, and the university will now have the upper hand in future negotiations.

“We knew that we had a business risk,” Kavanagh said. “I’d far rather be in the situation of having over-modeled ridership than be in the situation of having under-modeled ridership. If we had done that, we would find ourselves having to have very large increases in the rates.”

Lower rates, however, will not necessarily be the result. Kavanagh said overestimating does not guarantee decrease in future rates. Rather, it works to offset the standard rate increase that will happen over the next few years.

“We’re almost a year into the two-year contract, and I think the big focus coming up is going to be the next contact,” Mayock said. “When we have the student ridership numbers and it shows less riders, that is good information we can use to keep the cost down with these agencies.”

The money used to fund the program comes directly from the U-PASS fee students pay as part of their tuition. ASUW and GPSS passed a resolution Friday in favor of changing the name of this fee to the Student Transportation Fee.

“The biggest thing is there was a misconception that the U-PASS was fee for service,” Dow said. “When it’s called the Universal Student U-PASS Fee, people think that you’re paying for the service, which is not the original intent.”

Dow said he understood the fee as community-based rather than service-based; rather than simply paying for the service of the U-PASS, the fee allows access to a program that benefits the overall UW community.

The goal of changing the name is to eliminate confusion about what it funds. Mayock said it is important to note that this fee benefits everyone, not just those who ride the bus.

Dow said he hopes to lower this fee in the future to counter the 800,000 extra rides.

“If the two-year [contract] comes to an end and there is still this divergence between projected and actual ridership, we will for sure be at that table requesting a lower fee for students and making sure students are getting their bang for the buck,” he said.

Reach reporter Jillian Stampher at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @JillianStampher

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