Councilman Cries Foul on Changes to Free Transit Rides for City Students

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Courtesy MTA S-Pass Brochure

For years, students in Baltimore City public schools have been able to use passes that let them ride MTA buses and trains around the city for free from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. Today, a newly elected city councilman has taken a stand against recent changes to the pass system that cut back on those free rides and their hours, which he said leaves some students shut out of after school activities.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the 1st District in Southeast Baltimore and chairs the council’s Youth and Education Committee, said the MTA and City Schools recently changed their policies for free rides for students using the so-called S-Pass. The changes: The end time for free S-Pass rides was cut back from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the number of free swipes allotted to students was reduced to two swipes for the entire day. The latter change effectively eliminates students from riding anywhere else for free other than from home to school and vice-versa.

“As a result, many young people are not able to get home from after school programs,” said Cohen in a statement. “We have heard from children, parents and program directors that this policy change is hurting our kids.”

Reached by phone today, a City Schools spokesperson confirmed that the changes occurred this school year.

The school system had already modified the S-Pass card system this year by replacing the monthly passes used since 2012 with an annual card issued to students, according to its website. In a statement, the school system said that the card is called the “One Card” and has the same benefits as the MTA’s Charm Card: Two trips a day between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The school system responded to Cohen today with a statement that said it “recognized that students participate in school activities and after-school programs after 6:00 p.m.,” and that “as part of the district’s commitment to supporting high-quality extracurricular activities and enrichment, students who participate in school-based after-school programs that end after 6:00 p.m. receive MTA tickets for evening travel, provided at City Schools’ expense.”

The statement added that Baltimore City Schools is looking into alternatives for getting students to their after school activities, “but so far has been unable to identify a funding source.”

MTA Deputy Chief Operating Officer Sean Adgerson in a statement refuted any notion that the change was part of an effort to reduce costs. “Any suggestion that the MTA has changed its S-Pass policy to save money at the expense of Baltimore City’s school children is simply inaccurate,” he said. “The MTA recognizes the importance of after-school activities and has been providing transportation services for these activities for years and will continue to do so.”

Adgerson also echoed the school system’s point that they have created a way for students traveling after 6 p.m. to receive a transportation subsidy. “Again, however, it is the responsibility of the BCPS to determine which students get an upgraded pass,” he said.

According to Adgerson, students have two hours after swiping their new cards to make an unlimited number of transfers, which would theoretically allow them to keep swiping until 7:30 p.m. and mitigate some of the concerns about limited travel.

The MTA still lists the hours for S-Pass rides as 5 a.m.-8 p.m. on its website.

Cohen, who won his City Council seat this past November, previously was the executive director of The Intersection, a youth leadership development nonprofit operating in the Elwood Park neighborhood of Southeast Baltimore. “As the former Executive Director of a Youth Leadership Organization, I understand the devastating effect this policy will have on our families and kids,” he said in his statement.

Due to the feedback Cohen has received, the freshman lawmaker called for a press conference tonight “to bring light to this issue, and announce that we are holding a Committee Hearing to find short and long term solutions.” A release from Cohen also said he will call for an investigative hearing about the issue.

Council newcomers Ryan Dorsey of District 3, Kristerfer Burnett of District 8 and John Burnett of District 9, as well as veteran Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of District District 14, are scheduled to join Cohen as members of the Youth and Education Committee. The conference will take place in the fourth-floor chambers of City Hall starting at 5:30 p.m.

This story has been updated with comment from Baltimore City Schools and MTA.

Ethan McLeod
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