AC Transit and transparency in the ASUC

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Increased transparency and accountability rest at the core of ASUC policy and actions. With last semester’s student unification against fee hikes, unsurprisingly, the ASUC reaffirmed its commitment to fiscal accountability. At ASUC Senate finance committee meetings, student groups often request $3 notebooks as senators debate the values of fiscal responsibility, even if it means saving just a couple of dollars.

Yet despite these well-meaning intentions, an upcoming referendum to renew the AC Transit class pass (the system which allows students to use their Cal 1 Card on the bus for unlimited rides) is potentially threatening to institute student fees worth millions of dollars per year without accurate data on ridership. The contract contains no option to waive the fee, spans a long period of time and could potentially be worth less than we pay — all possible concessions on our end.

At the last senate meeting I was awestruck by the number of senators who supported the unstudied referendum, which requests more than $35 million over seven years in student fees. To be clear, I am not against the bus pass, but I cannot morally support such a monumental measure without necessary preparation. Although students should inevitably make this decision about their fees, a referendum that doesn’t provide information on how much students actually use the pass neglects the conscientiousness of Berkeley students who would be affected by the average use of their peers. Current juniors and seniors would vote only for future students. Voting in your own self-interest does not cut it when you’re not voting for yourself.

The fee increase would range from $77 to $86 over the seven years, and the specific amount allotted to AC transit would be between $37 and $41. One-third of the fee goes to financial aid, as is required for all fee increases, while a small percentage goes to fund alternate technology and the parking and transportation shuttles on campus. Without attaining any sort of deal — but to simply break even — the average student in 2014 would have to ride the bus about 18 times per semester with the flat admission rate at $2.10. Since we would be obligating such a large volume of students and such a long commitment to AC transit, we should be using the bus on average far more than the 18 times per semester that would solely break us even.

Regardless of whether our students do use the AC transit buses at that rate, we need to know that with certainty before putting this to a referendum. Paying an independent consulting firm to perform a statistically significant survey would be a necessary but small cost in light of such a massive and long-term contract. A schoolwide survey via email would not be sufficient for such a large sum of money. Although we do pay less for our bus pass than Alameda riders do for their monthly passes, the pass only benefits us if we know how much we actually use it.

The ASUC’s only data on the true value of this contract with AC Transit is from AC Transit. The fact that they have used the exact same number since 2006, combined with the fact that they are one of the negotiating parties in this contract, makes their estimate of 3.5 million rides per year shaky at best.

With the bus pass still maintained for next year, we have over a year to gather the information and have a referendum — once the picture is complete. It’s difficult to believe that AC Transit would halt its business with such a large customer because of not agreeing quickly enough. 2006 was the last year the AC Transit referendum took place, making this a year ahead of schedule.

Certain services on campus exist that are not used by all students but are subsidized by all. In no way do I oppose this concept, and the subsidizing of frequent riders by infrequent riders is understandable. My issue is not with this aspect. But students should know and not just guess the scope that they are subsidizing other students before approving of such a measure. Great services like the meditation space in MLK would not exist without the subsidizing of frequent users by infrequent users, but that room was converted with hard work and documentation of its predicted use. AC Transit has probably done their research for their interests. We must do the same.

If the data shows that people do in fact use the bus far above the 18 times per semester needed to break even, then I, of course, am in support of it. However, if the data shows that our ridership is far lower than we expected, then renewed negotiations must take place with AC Transit. The fear that fees by referendum in next year’s ballot would inhibit this fee from passing neglects the accountability associated with the ASUC and student fees as a whole. When our students face increasing financial burdens, each fee must be examined equally, and it is our responsibility not to place an incomplete referendum on this ballot.

Noah Ickowitz is an ASUC senator with the SQUELCH! Party.