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SANDAG board approves equity pilot program including free youth transit passes

The first trolley rolls onto the Tecolote Road stop on the Mid-Coast Extension of the UC San Diego Blue Line, June 29, 2021.
SANDAG
The first trolley rolls onto the Tecolote Road stop on the Mid-Coast Extension of the UC San Diego Blue Line, June 29, 2021.

The San Diego Association of Governments' board of directors Friday approved a pilot program intended to address concerns about equity in transit by providing free transit passes for people 18 and under and by increasing transit service on weeknights and weekends — particularly to underserved areas.

Vivian Moreno, a San Diego City Councilwoman and chair of SANDAG's Social Equity Working Group, said the pilot program was a long time coming.

"Providing free transit passes for youth is the single greatest investment our region can make to ensure that transit ridership grows in the future," Moreno said. "Free youth transit passes also have an immediate benefit of connecting youth to school, work, internships and other education and career opportunities.

"The community has been fighting for these youth opportunity passes for years, and their persistence has paid off," she said.

The working group voted unanimously at its Sept. 23 meeting to recommend that SANDAG's Transportation Committee and board approve a budget amendment to consider the free youth passes and increased transit service in underserved areas.

On Oct. 1, the Transportation Committee, also voted unanimously to recommend the board approve the amendment.

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The free youth fares are slated to begin in the spring of 2022, pending approval from the Metropolitan Transit System and North County Transit District. An outreach campaign about the developments would begin before the youth passes and the transit improvements are intended to start in the fall of 2022.

The pilot would end in the late summer 2023, followed by a research report on the efficacy of the program.

Activists have been pressuring SANDAG to fund free transit passes for youth since at least 2011. Many said during the meeting they strongly supported the pilot program, but would continue their push to make it permanent while also expanding it to young adults up to age 24.

The pilot program is expected to cost $6 million for the free youth passes and $1.75 million for the added bus services. The education and outreach efforts will cost $200,000 while the study will cost $50,000. The start of the program will be paid for with congestion management and air quality improvement funds.

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, a frequent critic of subsidies for public transit, sought unsuccessfully to expand the pilot to youth 24 and under, and to also cover trips on ride hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft, though he did not specify how that expansion would be paid for. SANDAG staff estimated expanding free transit to 24-year-olds would cost roughly $35 million.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata said Friday the agency's forthcoming Regional Transportation Plan calls for free public transit for everyone regardless of age by 2030, though that will likely depend on voters approving tax hikes to fund greater transit subsidies.