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North County Transit District will receive $700,000 for a pilot program offering free rides to anyone 18 and under. Photo via Facebook/NCTD
North County Transit District will receive $700,000 for a pilot program offering free rides to anyone 18 and under. Photo via Facebook/NCTD
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SANDAG allocates $700K to North County for transit pilot program

CARLSBAD — The San Diego Association of Governments approved an $8 million transit pilot program for free fares for those 18 years old and under during its Oct. 22 meeting.

Supervisor Nora Vargas, along with SANDAG’s social equity working group, developed the pilot test to reach underserved populations and communities across the region.

The plan passed 12-7, with representatives from the North County cities of Carlsbad, San Marcos and Vista voting against it.

The program will direct $5.3 million to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) and $700,000 to the North County Transit District (NCTD) for the pilot, which will run from March 2022 through June 2023.

Both transportation agencies still need to approve the program.

While Democrat board members said they hope the free rides will spur an increase in ridership, Republicans in opposition said there are few, if any, options for busses or transit in their respective cities, which is one of the reasons they sought to expand — or at least include — ridesharing services in the pilot program.

In an interview with The Coast News, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, one of eight North County representatives on the board, criticized the disparity in allocated funds between the city of San Diego and the entire northern portion of the county consisting of eight cities.

Jones said she wanted to include “sensible” options to serve all low-income areas. She also noted that currently thousands of college students (California State University San Marcos and Palomar College) have very few transportation options and San Marcos Unified School District doesn’t offer any bus services to its students.

“This was a policy direction so that staff would look at how it would be financially possible to have meaningful movement of young people,” Jones said. “Cities like mine need actual improvements, not money going down to San Diego like it always does. A third of the dollars and a third of the population is in North County, but we’re never looked at like a fair and equal partner.”

Oceanside Councilman Chris Rodriguez also pointed to the approved project’s lack of outreach to school districts, saying that by not getting more engagement with local schools, the program will likely “fade away.”

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey championed a more robust program that included free fares for individuals up to 24 years of age, but his substitute motion was defeated.

But proponents believe the pilot program is a great starting point to reach underserved populations and expand upon to include free rides for anyone younger than 24 years of age. Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of SANDAG, said the goal is to eventually provide free rides to all passengers by 2030.

“For some families in our region, fares are a monthly burden,” Brian Lane, senior transit planner for SANDAG, told the board. “We’ve heard for years that we’ve always like 24 and under to be considered for free fares, but we’ve estimated that would cost $35 million per year.”

Vargas said the “youth opportunity” transit passes are an investment in young people to eliminate financial barriers preventing them from riding transit, along with being committed to securing long-term funding for those 24 and under.

Vargas said the program will help those kids be able to go to school, jobs and extracurriculars, allowing their parents more time to commute to work.

“We’re going to be leading by example,” Vargas said. “Youth opportunity passes are an investment in our youth to eliminate financial barriers.”

Vargas, along with other Democrats on the regional board, also voiced concerns about the $35 million price tag for the 24-and-under population, while others like Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland said this could be a solution to fill empty busses.

The money for the pilot program will come from the federal Congestion and Mitigation Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program, which provides more than $8.1 billion dollars to state transportation departments, metropolitan planning organizations and transit agencies “to invest in projects that reduce emissions from transportation-related sources,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

SANDAG would need $6 million to cover fares, $1.7 million in transit improvements, $200,000 for outreach and $50,000 for a research study, which will come back to the board in Sept. 2023.

Transit improvements include, most notably, adding service on weekdays, weekends and evenings to routes with infrequent service, although it appears only MTS will receive those improvements, according to the staff report.

One challenge for the region is to increase ridership and develop life-long transit riders, according to several board members. Currently, transit ridership has dropped 50% during the pandemic and is at just 2%, although ridership has been declining for years, according to previous statements from transit agencies and elected officials.

Tony Kranz, deputy mayor of Encinitas and NCTD chairman, said the question becomes how to provide regional transit agencies with the necessary resources to provide a program this region wants.

NCTD has struggled over recent years, especially in the last several months, as a driver shortage has forced the agency to cut several routes per day.