UMD Parking partially funds 'free' bus transit program

With parking permits sold out, UMD student Ian Lundquist plugs the parking meter. What he doesn’t know: he’s paying part of the funds for other students to ride the bus. UMD Parking Services funds part of the U-PASS, a collaborative effort between the University and the Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) that enables students to use public-trans free of charge.

But it’s not free.

For the 2011 academic year, UMD paid the DTA $360,000 to cover student, faculty and staff bus fares. Parking services covered $125,000 of that—more than a third of the total price. This year, the price jumps to $400,000, and parking services will cover the same amount.

Translation: those who park on campus partly subsidize the Public Trans for those who don’t.

“I don’t live on a bus line, and I’m far from school,” said Lundquist. “Why am I paying the toll to ride a bus I don’t ride?”

“We know not all students can take the bus,” said Patrick Keenan, Director of Student Life. “The funding isn’t to penalize them, but rather to encourage those who don’t need cars to use the transportation available to them.”

And the DTA provides that transportation. They’re “contractually obligated through the spring semester of 2017,” wrote Tom Elwell, DTA Marketing Director. “It’s UMD’s strategy to encourage use of public transportation and restrict cheap parking on campus.”

As U-PASS ridership reached a record 569,361—as much as 20% of all DTA ridership in the academic year—the program has proved itself a large player in both student and community life.

“Riding the bus not only relieves congestion on campus,” said Keenan. “It also contributes to a reduction in energy use, environmental impact, and the costs associated with the use of personal vehicles.”

Yet the student response to its funding is mixed.

“You’re paying to park at the Duluth campus,” said UMD student Warren Olinger. “The money going to funding transportation for other students is a good allocation of revenue.”

“I agree with the idea that we should encourage students to use other means of getting to school,” said Christian Pezzutto, a junior at UMD. “I’m just not entirely sure about the means by which we’re encouraging it.”

“The contract fee will remain the same through the 2015-16 year, so any increase in UMD parking costs will not be due to the agreement with the DTA,” said Keenan.

But that’s not always going to be the case. At the DTA-UMD negotiations scheduled in 2016, the amount Parking Services pays may change. Whether this is an increase or decrease will depend on financial analysis as they see fit.

Right now, though, the local bus service webpage of the University states that students with a UMD photo I.D. can ride the DTA free of charge. “It doesn’t show up as a charge on your school financial account,” said Keenan.

Pezzutto isn’t convinced.

“Even if it doesn’t show up, students should be informed that the U-PASS service isn’t free,” he said. “It brings up a question of ethics, and maybe an asterisk under the free sign saying ‘funded in part by…’ would be better.”

Joshua Macvey

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