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Our view: Don't scrap UMD bus pass program

Launched in 2000, a program to give free bus passes to students and others at UMD was heralded as the long-sought answer to easing congestion and parking woes on campus while also helping college kids, many of them from out of town, become a vibrant part of the Duluth community.

It worked out well. Quickly the program was "too important to lose," as a UMD vice chancellor announced three years later when it was time to renew the arrangement, which by then had been expanded to other campuses in the city by the Duluth Transit Authority.

Today an estimated 6,200 UMD students and 800 campus employees ride the bus more than half a million times per school year. The "U-Pass" program is wildly popular and successful. It has become a piece of the fabric of campus life in Duluth.

And that'll continue, University of Minnesota Duluth officials insist -- even if they follow through with their proposal to begin charging students $10 per semester for their unlimited-rides passes. The proposal is a start at eating into a $9.4 million budget shortfall.

The charge, called a "transportation fee," will be assessed to student accounts at the same time as other student fees, Lisa Erwin, vice chancellor for student life, explained to the News Tribune Opinion page this week. Paying will be automatic, so it should also be painless. And students won't have a choice about participating, so all the benefits of the program's first 14 years will be preserved.

And really, a new 10-buck fee hardly seems enough to dissuade any student from coming to school at UMD, which costs about $20,000 per year. At the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, the "transportation fee" is $20 per semester.

Charging a transportation fee at UMD is expected to raise about $180,000, Erwin said. While that's only a tiny fraction of the $9.4 million deficit, it is a start.

"We are developing a plan to create a discounted transportation program for faculty and staff as well," she said. "They currently ride for free."

Such a plan makes sense. It seems fair. If students are to pay a nominal fee, instructors and other campus employees can expect the same. And it could eat into that deficit just a wee bit more.

When UMD first publicly broached charging students a fee for U-Pass, anxiety could have been expected that the program would become cost-

prohibitive, that its benefits would be lost and the program altogether, eventually, could be scrapped. But that doesn't appear to be the case. UMD officials seem to have come up with a better way to run the program -- and a painless, affordable way to raise revenue, even if only a tiny bit of what's needed overall. Still, only $9.2 million to go.

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