Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Cuts may hit free bus programs

County wants to freeze after-school Ride On, Metrobus rides to save $25K

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Students from Montgomery Blair High School board a Ride On bus Thursday after school. Budget cuts are forcing a freeze of a program that allows students to ride county buses for free at the end of the school day.
County Executive Isiah Leggett’s plan to freeze a program that provides free Ride On and Metrobus rides for students 18 and younger after school has parents who rely on the service wondering why cutting a program that would save the county only $25,000 was targeted.

‘‘It’s a cheap, ecologically sound investment that teaches kids independence,” said Takoma Park resident Mairi Breen Rothman. The service saves Rothman up to $80 a month, she said, and gets her three children between 12 and 17 years old to and from a long list of after-school activities.

Rothman’s 19-year-old son, Xaq, who is now a frequent public transit user in New York where he attends Sarah Lawrence College, used the service as a high school student rather than ask his parents or friends for rides.

‘‘It was really useful to have a way of getting home that I could depend on,” he said. ‘‘If I had to pay for it, I would’ve used it less.”

The Kids Ride Free program, available to school-age children 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, would be frozen for three months beginning April 1 under the Leggett plan.

Patrick K. Lacefield, a county spokesman, said despite the cut, a decision on whether the program would return in fiscal 2009 has not been made.

Leggett (D) instituted the savings plan and a hiring freeze this year to prepare for a projected $401 million deficit for fiscal 2009, which begins July 1. He will announce his recommended operating budget on March 17. The County Council has until June 1 to approve the budget.

In the meantime, the proposed cut to mass transit services this year is about $2 million, about $580,000 of which would be achieved by cutting or reducing Ride On bus routes.

County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said she was surprised to see the Kids Ride Free program on the list of cuts. She said she would work to come up with another way to save the county $25,000.

‘‘In a time where we’re talking about funding more after-school programs, taking away the option kids and their parents have of getting to these programs is a mistake,” she said.

The Kids Ride Free program was launched in May 2000. Those who use it make up about 2 percent of Ride On’s total riders, said Esther Bowring, a county spokeswoman. But about 15 percent of Ride On’s total ridership is 18 and younger, she said, showing that not everyone who is eligible chooses to apply for the photo ID required by the program.

Bowring said one reason for the low number could be the large portion of that population that instead buys a Youth Cruiser Pass. The pass, which costs $10 per month during the school year and $5 per month during the summer, offers riders 18 and younger unlimited rides. That program is being retained.

Patricia Dubroff, a Rockville resident whose 16-year-old daughter, Delia, commutes to Gaithersburg High School, said while she already pays for the pass to cover Delia’s morning ride, ‘‘the decision to cut anything that teaches the value of public transportation is a major mistake.”

‘‘I wouldn’t want to be in [Leggett’s] shoes, but there’s got to be some way to make up the difference,” Dubroff said. ‘‘A safe ride home is a perk that high schoolers deserve.”

Lacefield said Leggett is open to finding other ways to meet his 2 percent savings goal. ‘‘On a lot of this, we would rather not have any reductions,” Lacefield said, adding that Leggett’s office has received ‘‘several dozen e-mails” about the Kids Ride Free program.

Catherine Moore, a 15-year-old sophomore at Northwood High School who uses the service when riding home from after-school sports and visiting friends at Montgomery Blair High School, said the only other option many of her friends have is walking.

David Ottalini, PTSA co-president at Blair, said the cut would be ‘‘a huge deal” at the school, because many of the kids come from a wide area of the county.

‘‘We understand that when you have budget problems, you have to look at cuts. But that said, this really is a critical-need program,” he said.

Budget meetings

Residents interested in providing input on Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett’s (D) operating budget priorities for fiscal 2009 may attend a series of meetings over the next few weeks.

The meetings will be held 7 p.m. on:

Thursday – Belmont Elementary School, 19528 Olney Mill Road, Olney.

Jan. 16 – Eastern Montgomery Regional Services Center, 3300 Briggs Chaney Road, Silver Spring.

Jan. 22 – Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, 4805 Edgemoor Lane, Bethesda

Jan. 24 – Long Branch Community Center, 8700 Piney Branch Road, Silver Spring.

Online comment forms are available at www.montgomerycountymd.gov. Those in need of sign language interpretation or other special accommodations should call 240-777-6530 or e-mail karen.falcon@montgomerycountymd.gov.