After it was announced this month the sole University of Maryland bus route servicing Columbia will be cut, more than 20 students, faculty and staff met with DOTS executive director David Allen on Tuesday to propose funding solutions to keep it running through the 2018-19 academic year.
The primary solution proposed would have 30 of the #142 Columbia Park and Ride route's employee riders agree to a $900 yearly payroll deduction by the end of July, Allen said. This would provide enough funding for the #142 to run four times a day during the week throughout the upcoming fall and spring semesters, Allen added.
An online petition started last week, calling for the university's Department Of Transportation Services to "reconsider the complete cancellation of the 142 bus service," garnered over 90 signatures by Tuesday night.
In May, DOTS announced multiple bus route cuts, which included complete elimination of the #142, taking effect July 1. According to DOTS's website, the last day of service for the #142 will be June 29. The changes were made to compensate for a budget deficit of at least $700,000 arising from less campus parking due to Cole Field House construction and the planned construction of an underground parking garage.
Rising senior biology major Zaynah Ahmed, who attended the meeting, said she used the Columbia route almost every day since it began running in fall 2017. She said the route's elimination contradicts this university's sustainability initiatives, emphasizing it's unfair to cut a growing route while lacking alternative transportation methods.
"Driving is the last thing that I want to do, considering parking is expensive and how much time it's going to take, but there are really no other affordable alternatives for students who live in Columbia," Ahmed said, noting she looked into Maryland Transit Administration and Metro routes.
Other than the Columbia route, DOTS currently offers vanpooling and carpooling options for Columbia commuters. University employees can share a van with four commuters for a monthly fee, and DOTS helps organize carpooling through the Smart Commute website, according to the #142 service update on the department's website.
Allen and the attendees also discussed the possibility of creating bus passes for all university employees. Employees would pay a fee to use all campus bus transportation to help prevent routes from being reduced or eliminated, if there are future budget deficits. Allen said this idea is something that if pursued, the department would look into further in the fall.
Full-time undergraduate and graduate students paid $203 in mandatory shuttle bus fees in the 2017-18 academic year.
Low ridership was cited as the main reason for eliminating the Columbia route rather than other routes, Allen said, particularly noting its low number of student riders. The #142 did have higher ridership in its first year compared to the #141 Gaithersburg Park and Ride's first year in spring 2016, but experienced significantly lower ridership overall compared to all other routes, Allen said.
Tracy Kennedy, the undergraduate behavioral and community health internship program manager, helped lead the petition group as a Columbia bus rider. Kennedy said while the solution to accept payroll deductions is not entirely ideal for this university's employees, she was glad DOTS listened to the riders' concerns.
"I'm encouraged that [DOTS is] willing to keep this dialogue open and come up with some solutions going forward," said Kennedy. "I'm just hopeful that we get enough faculty and staff to pay for it."
Rising sophomore Thomas Geisler said he scheduled his entire fall semester around the Columbia route, and the timing of the route change announcement reveals a lack of transparency from DOTS.
"I feel like they sort of pulled a slick one without anyone knowing and announced [the route changes] right before the spring semester ended," said Geisler, who is enrolled in letters and sciences. "To me, the idea that I get from that is that they timed it so that they would get minimal pushback. … The whole situation just doesn't feel to me as if DOTS went about it properly."
The Columbia riders hope to gather 30 employee riders for the payroll deductions by the end of July. Allen said more meetings will be held.