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 High gas prices (note sign at left) are but one reason it makes sense to sign up for a Bear Pass - along with the prospect of prizes, grand and otherwise. (Deborah Stalford photo)

Friends don't let friends miss the bus
Cut-rate Bear Pass for staff and faculty a cure for parking woes, gas-pump gouging

| 03 November 2005

When the Bear Pass program launched in October 2004, Albert Meerson was riding AC Transit's No. 72 line daily from El Cerrito to his job with Business Services in Oakland's Marchant Building. For him, the cut-rate monthly fee of $20 for unlimited bus trips was a huge bargain.

Now that he's spending more time at his girlfriend's place in San Ramon, he usually takes BART to work, and only needs his Bear Pass "once in a while" for commuting. But he still thinks it's a bargain.

"It's a great program," says Meerson, who doesn't own a car. He uses his pass to travel back and forth from San Pablo Avenue to work-related classes - as often as "three or four times a week" during the recent upgrade of the Berkeley Financial System - and especially likes the fact that the cost "comes off the top of your paycheck."

Meerson is one of about 800 current Bear Pass holders, nearly double the number of Berkeley staff and faculty who relied on AC Transit before the deeply discounted passes were made available. With the pilot program set to expire on June 30, the Parking and Transportation Department is pulling out all the stops to keep it running.

"If we can meet our target goal of 1,200 participants," says transportation planner Kira Stoll, "it would show that this is a vital commute program, and help to ensure that funding is found" to renew it.

Under the campus's arrangement with AC, the company gets a flat fee of $50 for each of the roughly 8,500 UC Berkeley employees in its service area - a hefty $450,000 yearly payout that helps explain why campus employees must kick in even the modest $20 a month, a small fraction of the cost of a comparable monthly pass. (The city of Berkeley has a similar deal with AC Transit but, with far fewer qualifying employees, makes its pass available at no charge to staff.) The bulk of the financing now comes from parking revenues.

"As we look at our budget for the next fiscal year, the question is whether parking funds can continue to support the program at that level," Stoll explains. "The stronger our transit-user base, and the financial support it provides, the more likely it is that the campus will make a longer-term commitment."

AC Transit has at least 10 lines serving the campus from all directions, and a planned Telegraph Avenue rapid-bus line from Oakland is expected to start rolling in 2006. More than half of all staff and faculty live within five miles of campus; more than 1,000 employees who currently drive to work live within a quarter-mile of an AC Transit stop and would have a direct bus commute of under 20 minutes.

Stoll notes that even with a recent downturn, gas prices remain in the stratosphere, and seem likely to head north again along with parking-permit fees, making the Bear Pass a better deal than ever. (AC Transit fares and monthly passes have also risen.) The pass - good for trips across the Bay Bridge as well as throughout much of the East Bay - pays for itself after seven local round-trip rides.

Beyond cost savings and convenience, though, Stoll hopes that a growing awareness of sustainability issues will convince more people to get out of their cars and onto the bus. "The choices we make on how we commute can have a large impact," she says.

Step up, win a prize

If all that's not enough to coax reluctant commuters onto public transit, Parking and Transportation (P&T) is devoting November to persuading them. "The campaign is designed to spread the word about what transit commuting means to people on campus - to let them know it's part of a lifestyle that people are really enthusiastic about," says Stoll.

And then there's the free food and prizes.

Look for lunch-hour information tables at four campus locations during the coming weeks. Representatives from P&T, AC Transit, and 511.org will be there to answer questions, and to give away items including free-ride tickets to those interested in giving bus commuting a test run.

The Bear Pass "refer-a-friend" campaign, "Pass Along the Bear Pass," runs from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28. All new enrollees during that period, and the Bear Pass holders who refer them, will be eligible for prizes - from BART tickets to coupons good at campus restaurants - and will be entered in a grand-prize drawing to be held in March.

The P&T Department is also seeking Bear Pass testimonials from satisfied customers, and will reward the best ones with BART tickets valued at $32.
One such customer is James Dudek, a senior policy analyst in the College of Letters and Science. Like Meerson, he no longer uses his pass every day, having recently moved to Richmond. Even so, he says, "it's a money-saver and a convenience."

"I use it to supplement my ways of getting around campus and the world," he says.

Stoll hopes that others like Meerson and Dudek will help make the case for bus ridership over the next month, forming a network of campus commuters willing to advise "people who may be on the edge of considering public transit" on the advantages of the Bear Pass.

Given the somewhat precarious finances of the program, the campaign carries a certain urgency.

"If people have any inkling that AC Transit might be something they're interested in," stresses Stoll, "now is the time to try it."

To learn more about the Bear Pass or the promotional campaign, or to become a Bear Pass ambassador, visit the P&T website at pt.berkeley.edu.