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Program back on the road for youth LTD bus passes.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

About 27,000 middle and high school students will again ride Lane Transit District buses for free beginning Sept. 1, thanks to the resumption of a program funded by the state Department of Energy.

LTD officials earlier believed that the program came to an end last spring, before state energy officials encouraged them to renew their application under a business energy tax credit program.

The application was approved Monday.

"From the response we got when people heard it was not going to continue, it was obvious that the program touched a chord," LTD spokesman Andy Vobora said. "A lot of families appreciated the opportunity for kids to ride the bus to get to school, and for the flexibility of getting to work or recreational activities after school."

For now, the program's continuation is ensured only through December, but state energy officials say they anticipate changes in department rules this fall will allow the program to operate indefinitely. The program operates during the school year only.

As in the past, students will need only to show a bus pass sticker on their school identification cards to ride any LTD bus. LTD will distribute temporary ride cards at the start of the school year to tide students over until they receive their school ID cards.

A pilot program in the spring of 2005 involved about 5,000 high school students. But in the fall of 2005, the free bus program was expanded to take in all high school and middle school students in the Eugene-Springfield metro area, a total of about 22,000 students. Then, last fall, the program was expanded to include another 5,000 eligible students in Cottage Grove, Junction City and other outlying communities within LTD's service area.

LTD estimated about 6,000 students jumped on a bus each school day - accounting for nearly half of the increase in ridership in recent years.

Those numbers are what helped spur the state energy department to find a way to continue the program, spokesman Lou Torres said. "Their numbers have been very, very strong," Torres said. "It's a very successful program and we're glad to be a part of it."

LTD figured the program was dead when state officials asked that local funds be found to help cover the costs, Vobora said. Last spring, LTD floated a cut-rate group pass program to area schools - $3.68 per month per enrolled student - to help subsidize the costs, but officials in the Eugene, Bethel and Springfield school districts said they couldn't afford it.

Ultimately, the energy department agreed to let the program continue this fall as a "research and development" project. Under department rules, transit districts can apply directly for research and development funds, but must find another agency or company to apply on its behalf to receive long-term project funding.

If those rules are changed this fall, however, LTD could then apply on its own for continued funding.

The tax credit program also requires that LTD find a "pass-through" partner who would be eligible for a 9.5 percent reduction in its tax burden. Vobora said LTD probably will approach a few local businesses to test their interest.

"We don't think we'll have too much trouble finding someone," he said.

LTD's program is believed to be the only one in the state that provides free bus passes to middle and high school students, as opposed to college students or workplace employees.

"We hope it fosters future ridership by changing habits now," Vobora said. "The younger you start with folks, the more ingrained it becomes to ride the bus."
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Title Annotation:Transportation; Funds from the state Department of Energy will provide free rides for thousands of middle and high school students beginning Sept.
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 18, 2007
Next Article:Secretary of state candidates look ahead to challenge.

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