Why should we pay for what was once free?

Lauren McClellan
Guest Columnist

VCU this semester started charging students $50 or $100 for GRTC transit passes. Previously, these transit passes were free to students who enrolled full- and part-time at the university. After learning about this new fee via students on social media (not through the university itself), I decided to start a petition on Change.org. VCU has done a poor job communicating changes to the GRTC transit program to both new and returning students.

Before starting my petition on July 9, I tried looking up information about the new fee on the VCU Parking and Transportation website. An old webpage that had yet to be updated said they were still free. I thought that was odd when the front page of the Parking and Transportation website now had a new button that said “Purchase a GRTC Transit Pass.” Why would a student have to “purchase” a bus pass that the website said was free?

The fact that I could not get updated, accurate information on VCU’s Parking and Transportation website only added to my frustration.

I had many other reasons to start this petition, including the following:

VCU is trying to be a “green” university. A free bus pass would encourage more people to use public transportation, which is a “greener” option than driving alone. VCU has added more parking garages, but this new GRTC transit fee doesn’t really seem like it will expand public transportation.

Many VCU students don’t bring cars with them to campus because of the limited parking. The bus is a way for off-campus students to get to class.
The bus pass allows many students to explore Richmond. We need to get to know the city we’re going to be spending four (or more) years in, don’t we?

After advertising it on many VCU-related Facebook groups and other social media websites, I had over 1,000 signatures nine days after I created the petition. I had an on-camera interview with Channel 8 and CBS 6 mentioned my petition in an article. It was gaining traction and I wasn’t alone in my frustration.

People emailed me different reasons why they believed the passes should remain free and I agreed with every one of them.

Brandon King, a student from eastern Henrico, wrote, “These buses can take you to malls and government buildings but me

personally I was elated about the free passes for students because it would be much easier and obviously very cheaply allow me to visit my family back home, as I have no car.”

Other students told me they used it to not only get to campus, but to get to work, to shop for groceries and to go to the doctor. Some of them said they use the GRTC buses to get home safely since the VCU RamRIDE buses and the RamSAFE vans don’t go to their houses. For many of them, paying $50 or $100 for a bus pass every semester just wasn’t possible. It made me think of all the friends who have had to drop out of school and move back home because other financial situations had become overwhelming.

VCU released a statement the same day I was interviewed by Channel 8 saying they notified the SGA about the changes last spring. After speaking with SGA members, the “notification” VCU administrator David Hanson was talking about in his statement was a bullet point on a presentation that said, “GRTC Pass expanded to faculty staff, with a discount of 30 percent. Student pass will be discounted 60 percent.”

That bullet point just left me with a question: How do you “discount” a pass that was once free? The way that sentence was worded only adds to the ever-growing confusion around this issue.

I’ve tried contacting Parking and Transportation services, but to no avail. I just want to know a few things: How was this program funded? If it was funded through student fees, why haven’t our student fees changed to reflect the change in the cost?

We pay thousands in tuition and fees already. Tuition is always rising. The cost of parking increases. Dining plans are expensive. I’ve had many friends drop out even though VCU is not an expensive university to attend. Being a student these days is almost like saying you are willing to be poor for four years so you can have a better chance of financial security later in your life.

Why not help students who are struggling financially by letting them have the bus passes at no out-of-pocket cost to them? Why change the cost now? Why should we now pay for something that was once free?

To find out more information about the petition, contact Lauren McClellan at mcclellanlm@vcu.edu.

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