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Editorial: A new transportation bargain for Buffalo students

There are good reasons behind the restrictions put on the bus and rail passes issued to high school students in the Buffalo Public Schools. That doesn’t mean that, 27 years after they were issued, there isn’t room for improvement.

The Metro Rail system was brand new in 1985 when the Buffalo Schools and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority first reached an agreement to provide some 12,000 high school students with passes to use for getting to school.

Soon after, concerns were raised about the effects of having a large number of students congregating downtown at once, many transferring there from buses to trains.

A 1994 Buffalo News story said that Buffalo police were receiving “four or five trouble calls” in the Main Place Mall each day. Clusters of as many as 100 kids sometimes intimidated or annoyed pedestrians and disturbed nearby businesses.

The NFTA’s Transit Police, with help from a U.S. Justice Department community policing program, worked with the Buffalo Public Schools on policies to mitigate the problems. The 1991 contract between the NFTA and BPS includes restrictions on how and when the students can use their bus and rail passes. For example, they can be used only at certain times of the day, and on designated bus routes. There are separate passes issued for late-night student activities, for summer school or for Saturdays.

The school district pays the same $75 rate as the general public for a monthly pass. Twenty-seven years later, members of a parents’ group, the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, object to the restrictions on student passes.

“If Buffalo Public Schools are paying a full rate our students should be able to have the same access – and not just to school, but to libraries, museums, local colleges,” Larry Scott, co-chair of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, told The News. Scott said the restrictions mean city students “don’t have the same opportunities as wealthier families or suburban communities.”

Students highlighted in The News’ article have other complaints about the ride restrictions. Because they are locked into certain bus routes, it takes some students longer to get home than if they could pick bus routes on their own. And missed bus connections can mean long walks home, sometimes through unfriendly neighorhoods.

A story in The News last week said the school district and the NFTA are working on negotiating a new contract, hoping to have a deal in place by the start of school in September.

That’s good news. The goal should include a break on the price of the passes. The school district pays about $8 million a year for more than 10,000 student bus passes. With that kind of purchasing power, they should be able to get a great price.

It should also include more flexibility for students to take the best route.

A 2015 report from researchers at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations stated that only 10 percent of students in Buffalo lived within 1.5 miles of their school, which is considered walking distance. The rest are eligible for bus rides, which is why the district’s budget includes about $56 million for transportation. About $40 million of that is for the yellow school buses used for grades K-8.

The outlay for transportation is just one part of the district’s budget of close to $900 million, funded by taxpayers, locally and with state aid. But for a district with a sizable budget deficit, getting a break on the bus pass fees would help.

The riding rules were created in the year of the Buffalo Bills’ first Super Bowl. It’s time for an update.