A year ago, Schenectady County Community College had a big transportation headache. Tropical Storm Irene, and a week later Tropical Storm Lee, flooded its parking lots, making them unusable as school was starting.
So college officials jumped into a pilot program that let students ride Capital District Transportation Authority buses for free, hoping to reduce the number of students driving to campus.
The ride program turned out to be popular even after the parking lots near the Mohawk River were cleaned and reopened.
“Our students are using the ridership program like crazy,” said Martha Asselin, SCCC’s vice president for student affairs.
Now SCCC and CDTA have finalized a deal that makes the free-ridership arrangement permanent, starting with the first day of classes Tuesday. Normally, the bus fare would be $1.50.
SCCC has become the sixth Capital Region college to sign up for CDTA’s universal access program, in which the colleges pay CDTA so students can ride free.
In the 2011-12 school year, SCCC generated 230,000 rides. By that measure, the college was second only to the University at Albany — which had about one million rides — among the participating schools.
Other colleges with agreements with CDTA are The College of Saint Rose in Albany, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Russell Sage College in Troy, and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Together, students at participating colleges account for 1.7 million to 1.8 million rides annually out of a total CDTA ridership that is expected to hit 15 million this year.
College and CDTA officials both call the ridership arrangements good public policy: They provide students with low-cost mobility while increasing CDTA’s ridership.
“I hate the cliche, but it really is a win-win,” said CDTA Executive Director Carm Basile.
One key is that students at SCCC’s Washington Avenue campus have good access to the CDTA system. A BusPlus station is across the street from the college, where about 7,000 students are enrolled. About half come from Schenectady County, the rest from other local communities.
The way the universal access program works, people with valid student IDs can ride anywhere in CDTA’s four-county transit system.
“We’ve learned over the years to not think of it just in terms of connecting students between housing to campus. Think of it as connecting them to the whole region,” Basile said. “Students want to have mobility.”
Asselin said the free ridership has expanded student opportunities for internships and jobs, and some students have used it to go to Crossgates Mall or even Wilton Mall.
“It’s getting them out and about in ways we didn’t even imagine,” she said.
A study done for the college by AAA concluded an individual student could be saving $8,500 a year by not driving, in addition to reducing their carbon footprint. There may be educational benefits, as well.
“We believe in the long term, retention rates will show that we’ve taken away one factor that could cause students to have to leave school,” Asselin said.
Special mass-transit arrangements for college students have been around for years — the University at Albany signed the first deal in 1995 — but it’s become more prevalent in the last several years, since “swiper” technology allowed bus fare boxes to electronically recognize student ID cards.
The cards contain a digital chip that allows the rides to be counted. To be eligible for free transportation, students must be enrolled and maintain enrollment at SCCC and have paid the student activity fee.
The Schenectady college is paying about $150,000 a year, Basile said. Altogether, the college access program brings about $1.6 million into CDTA’s coffers, he said.
Basile said CDTA is selling rides to the colleges at a wholesale price — a deep discount from the standalone fare.
“It’s about a dollar per ride,” Basile said.
The money to pay CDTA, in SCCC’s case, comes from student activity fees, but Basile said every college’s arrangement is slightly different.
CDTA officials would like to see more schools participating. Siena College in Loudonville is currently in a pilot program.
“We’re talking to two or three others,” Basile said.
CDTA is also working on developing similar access programs for large businesses. The first agreement, with ShopRite Supermarkets, was announced two weeks ago.
Asselin said some faculty members have expressed interest, but, for now, the free-ride program is limited to students.
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: