Free fare for kids on RiverCities buses stalls over fears of unaccompanied riders

Free fare for kids on RiverCities buses stalls over fears of unaccompanied riders

Longview (Wash.) Public Works Director Ken Hash, who oversees RiverCities as one of his departments, said questions about unaccompanied children came "totally out of the blue."
June 17, 2022

By Brennen Kauffman, Daily News

Longview and RiverCities Transit staff want to take a second shot at eliminating bus fares for all riders 18 years old and younger.

RiverCities is pursuing a policy that would get rid of fares for riders between the ages of 6 and 18. The first attempt to get the change approved by the Cowlitz Transit Authority was derailed last week by worries about unaccompanied minors riding the bus.

Longview Public Works Director Ken Hash oversees RiverCities as one of his departments. He said the questions about unaccompanied children came "totally out of the blue," especially as the agency has been running a similar program since the beginning of 2020 without running into any concerns.

"We've had a very successful free youth pass system for two and a half years. We have never had the issue of unaccompanied minors riding the bus," Hash said.

The Cowlitz Transit Authority board did not vote against the free fare during the June 8 meeting. Instead, no member of the board made a motion to bring the policy for a vote and the measure stalled out after a half-hour of discussion.

Hash said he has spoken with Cowlitz Transit Authority Chairman Dennis Weber about bringing the issue back for discussion in July. If it is considered again, the meeting may include a separate discussion item about whether RiverCities needs to set a minimum age for solo riders.

RiverCities does not have an official rule against children riding the bus alone. Hash said in conversations with RiverCities director Jim Seeks and the bus drivers, none could recall any instances where an unaccompanied kid rode the bus. Kids waiting at RiverCities bus stops almost always were waiting for school buses.

"There's not an official policy. We never felt a need for it because this has never come up," Hash said.

Eliminating fares for passengers 18 years old and younger is a prerequisite for Washington transit agencies to get a portion of a newly created pool of grant funding. Earlier this year, the state Legislature established the grant program as an incentive for transit agencies to get rid of fares for children.

"I have super-duper issues with young children getting on a city bus and going anywhere they want without permission, and I'm sad that it's connected to grant funding," Longview Mayor MaryAlice Wallis said during the June 8 meeting. Wallis also sits on the transit authority board.

Transit agencies need to have the zero-fare policy in place by October to receive the first year of funds. Seeks estimated RiverCities could receive around $250,000 during the first year.

The zero fare policy would apply to every child riding RiverCities buses, including ones traveling with their families, if they have a RiverCities Youth pass or other form of identification. Children under the age of 6 currently ride for free. All other passengers pay $1 for a one-way trip and $2 for a round-trip pass.

RiverCities started a three-year pilot program of free youth passes at the beginning of 2020. Parents or guardians sign up for their child to receive the annual pass.

Seeks told the transit authority RiverCities issued 190 youth passes in 2022 and provided more than 4,000 rides through the program this year. In total, more than 700 youth passes have been issued since the start of 2020.

During the Cowlitz Transit Authority's public hearing, state state Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, spoke against the zero fare policy. Wilson said there was a lack of details from the Washington Department of Transportation about the new grant program and opposed the funding sources for the program in the state transportation package, which includes price increases for car tabs.

"We need to have a value placed upon all of our riders. There's no discrimination based on age once you enter public transportation," Wilson said.

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(c) 2022 The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

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