Today in Two Steps Backwards: USC Discontinues Rideshare Subsidy Program for 3000+ Employees; Offers Parking Passes as Consolation

Rendering of the $650 million USC Village, sited at Jefferson and Hoover and touted as "the most expansive development project in the history of South Los Angeles." Source: USC
Rendering of the $650 million USC Village, sited at Jefferson and Hoover and touted as “the most expansive development project in the history of South Los Angeles.” Source: USC

The letter sent to the more than three thousand faculty and staff that participated in USC’s Rideshare Subsidy Program this past June 16th started off happily enough.

The USC Rideshare program is growing and continuing to evolve!  In 2015, we recorded our highest-ever Air Quality Management District (AQMD) survey result – an AVR (average vehicle ridership) of 1.92. This is a phenomenal result – nearly 2 people on average in every car that comes to our campuses – and represents USC’s seventh consecutive year-over-year improvement in this important metric.

Not bad, right? Carpooling is happening. It’s improving every year. And, on top of that, more than three thousand of the faculty and staff (out of a total of ~17,000) are choosing some form of transit or rideshare to get to campus. Despite the Reason Foundation’s dire predictions about the Expo Line, people are taking advantage of the three USC stops. Things are looking up. Good on you, USC!

Metro gave USC three -- count 'em, three! -- stops.
Metro gave USC three — count ’em, three! — stops. Jefferson/USC, Expo Park/USC, and Expo/Vermont.

So, the logical thing is to reward that and encourage more rideshare, right? Because building and maintaining parking lots is expensive. The university already owns and/or manages ~16,000 spaces and is currently in the process of building some surface lots and two more structures — one at the main campus and one at Health Sciences in Boyle Heights — containing a total of 2,000 spaces. Using the median construction cost of a single above-ground parking space in Los Angeles, calculated at $19,355, it looks like those 2,000 spaces alone will cost approximately $38.7 million to build. And that is without factoring in the opportunity cost of constructing more facilities for students on what is rather valuable real estate.

All of which makes the next part of the letter that much more confusing.

With more people than ever now using alternate commuting options, Transportation Services must continue to evolve as well; with that in mind, we will be making the following changes to the Rideshare program in FY16 (starting July 1):

The direct [rideshare] subsidy program is being incorporated into the free [parking] passes program, and will no longer be available in its current format. In turn, the three free parking passes/month program (value: $30) is being expanded to include registered participants in the Metro Monthly and Metro ATAP programs, joining members of the Metrolink and LADOT programs who already receive this benefit.

Yes. That says what you think it says: Rideshare was such an overwhelming success that we’re going to discontinue it and give you three free parking passes per month instead.

And in perhaps what is one of the greater ironies of this change, the letter notes that those using free passes must park in the University Parking Center (UPX), located east of the 110 freeway, several blocks away, but that they can take advantage of the free shuttles USC runs every 15-20 minutes, 16 hours a day, to get people back and forth between the parking structure and the campus. The cost of running those shuttles and the campus cruisers (which people also sometimes use to get to their cars), I was told by David Donovan of USC Transportation, is one of the reasons the transit subsidy program was cut. One or the other had to go, and cutting one of those was preferable to cutting jobs.

That said, in the larger scheme of things, pinning down exactly why the transit subsidy was cut is not that simple.

In the FAQs posted to answer employees’ concerns about the change, the department explains that, every year, “the university asks all departments to reassess each program every year and compares them to the strategic needs of the university.” And that process tends to result in departments scrambling to manage the “reallocation of resources to ensure high priority goals [of the university] can be funded.” Often, those cuts come to jobs. In the case of Transportation, it was the subsidy.

To be fair to the department of Transportation, I’m sure the choice wasn’t easy. Three thousand or more participants in the program equals approximately $1.2 million ($30 per month in vouchers or passes for participants) that would have to be paid out each year. That’s a hefty chunk of change, especially if the ridership continues to grow. A small drop in the bucket in a university with a multi-billion dollar budget, perhaps, or when compared to the cost of constructing just 2,000 parking spaces (noted above), but a lot for a single department.

The explanation Donovan gives on the staff assembly page for the raising of parking rates (also part of the changes that hit on July 1), lays the dilemma out a little more clearly:

In short, [the changes] were made to help ensure that USC Transportation is able to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the services it provides to the university community, and to allow the university to keep funds available for future investment in strategic initiatives, including retaining and hiring staff and faculty.

So, it really wasn’t about transportation as much as it was about USC prioritizing the student environment and raising its national and international profile with rock star faculty and research initiatives.

Which could kind of be understandable except that the university is currently undergoing a $6 billion capital campaign to raise the funds to cover those priorities.

And it’s already raised over $4 billion toward that goal.

It is such an insane amount of money that it actually prompted Al Checcio, senior vice president for university advancement, to say, “This campaign isn’t about the money. It’s about what the money enables USC to do.

And what the money unfortunately does not enable USC to do, it seems, is to take better care of its employees and safeguard the air that they and the students USC is working so hard to create a home for (at the $650 million USC Village) breathe.

 

  • It should also be mentioned that USC’s student pass program is very poor as well. As far as I know it’s only available to grad students, and even then there are a limited number of passes and they’re distributed in about the least effective way possible. Given USC’s now very transit-accessible location and responsibility to the local and broader community, it’s record on transportation is frankly a national embarrassment.

  • AndreL

    With three light rail stops nearby, and the system expanding, couldn’t we expect that more and more staff and faculty will use park-and-ride to reach at least the main campus?

  • calwatch

    There is an existing Metro monthly pass program which gives discounts to all students – $43 for all Metro lines. Apparently they feel that is sufficient. Rather than building more parking structures, subsidizing transit will save the cost of building more parking, and maybe even allow existing surface lots to be repurposed for something more useful.

  • Matt R

    I once had a conversation with someone at Reason.org about the city’s decision to use some of the net profits from the expressway system towards active transportation and the person was adamantly against it. We need all those funds (10% of the net I think it was) to only go to cars. At least they are consistent.

    Sahra- the link to the Reason article is down.

  • ubrayj02

    What a huge step backwards for the city. USC’s singular focus on its executive staff’s morning commute will cost us all dearly in pollution, time wasted in traffic, and increasing problems from a sedentary lifestyle. Maybe they are trying to cement their medical school business by contributing to the causes of todays health epidemics. What is next USC? Free corn syrup and sugar injections to everyone who agrees to eat three McDonlads hamburgers a day?

  • TrojanLights

    The full priced monthly Metro passes are still a pretty good savings over the cost of gas and parking. Even better for myself as a senior I pay only $20. per month.

  • sahra

    thanks, i’ll check it!

  • The double speak that’s apparent in that letter is disgusting. I hate it when people bald faced lie about things like that. I mean, I honestly prefer lying by omission.

  • As far as I know, they do nothing to advertise that Metro program. If they do it’s certainly not done well, given that I care so deeply about these issues and wasn’t aware of it. They offer a great deal for grad students (not sure if it’s every program), where you can get a pass for the whole semester for just $100, but like I said, that seems to be limited and can be a hassle to acquire from the on-campus office.

  • Chris Wienberg

    I’ve taken advantage of the USC graduate student metro pass program one semester, and I agree that it’s very poor. When it was originally being planned, it was announced that it would be priced at $8.63, which was insanely cheap. Even when they realized this was insane, the announced price went up to $20 before starting at $60 a semester. The price has gone up just about every semester since, and while it’s still affordable, there’s a better solution, that probably doesn’t even require subsidy.

    USC should do what most other major schools do, and include the metro pass as a part of every student’s student fees. The passes drop in price dramatically due to scale, and it will induce students to use transit since they’ve already paid for it.

    USC’s going to have to become much more progressive on this. USC campus has no room to expand into, yet they’ve set aside valuable campus land for parking. Changing students’ and staff’s commute patterns now will save pain later when they inevitably have to knock over parking structures to build academic buildings.

  • Irwin Chen

    Transit subsidy is fine but when 17% of the staff use the program, it seems to me that means that it has reached critical mass and some of them will continue to use it without the subsidy. USC is one of those rare places in LA private sector employment where public transit is convenient and time efficient (for some) vs. driving. Obviously, it is better from the perspective of the users to continue to receive subsidy, but transit use at USC is already much cheaper than driving (parking is $$$) for the most part, so the subsidy is of marginal value in my opinion.

    The other issue with parking at USC is that it is a revenue generator, much more so than at say… UCLA, due to football games. It’s a reasonable business decision for USC to devote certain amount of real estate on campus to parking – and let’s be clear… USC’s parking is not free, nor cheap, so it is consistent with the Shoupian school of parking theory. They charge pretty much market rate for daily parking. The semester parking pass is somewhat subsidized but still far more than 4 month of Metro EZ Pass.

    Someone also asked why USC doesn’t have a transit pass program for undergrads like UCLA’s Bruin Go pass. I think this has to do with the fact that USC is in Metro service area and Metro has its own Student Pass. UCLA’s program only works with BBB and Culver City, which is great for UCLA students that commute from Westside. USC students typically live very close to campus (they walk or bike), and the commute students typically live quite far away (West LA or SGV) so a lot of them just drive.

  • Joe Linton

    That USC views parking as revenue generation is probably true, especially when they’ve already sunk hundreds(?) or millions of dollars into building and maintaining parking… but I think that economic reality of spaces would probably be a broad spectrum. From the article, USC has ~16,000 parking spaces and is building ~2,000 more (and I am going to guess that most of these are in above-ground structures – so that’s about $25,000 per space.) The first space may well generate a profit above what it costs to build/maintain/depreciate… but that 18,000th space probably will probably never generate enough revenue to pay for itself.

    What I don’t understand is why USC wouldn’t just spread its transit subsidy thinner? If the program is too popular, reduce the the amount each recipient gets. I am curious if eliminating the transit incentive will increase car commuting which will cause problems that USC won’t be happy with – such as excessive congestion around their campuses at commute hours (and/or loss of space/money for other stuff.)

  • Sirinya Matute

    Speaking solely for myself…I wanted to provide more information on how UCLA’s transit pass programs work and why they started.

    At most universities, students have access to heavily discounted or free transit passes because they wanted it. Student governments will provide a discounted or free pass as a part of associated student government fees that every student has to pay. At many places, this gets approved through a referendum. USC’s graduate student government did this, which is why graduate students have access to a discounted Metro pass. I can’t speak to the undergrads and whether they had a failed effort, or nobody cared enough to organize for this.

    UCLA is motivated to run its programs in part to curtail parking demand, but also to seriously curtail vehicle trips into campus. It is working toward a 50% drive alone rate for faculty and staff. That would be 25 percentage points lower than than the County average. UCLA is in a different situation in that we piloted BruinGO using parking revenue. The one year pilot was extremely popular and successful. Students were asked to pay for part of the cost through a referendum. That failed due to inadequate voter turnout, not lack of support amongst those who did actually vote. (It was surprising, given that Don Shoup had a substantial group of students canvassing campus for a Yes vote. Donald Shoup, Parking Rock Star, pushed for BruinGO while serving on the UCLA Transportation’s advisory board in the late 1990s. Everyone should thank Don.) UCLA has since gone on to subsidize passes for all six operators that serve UCLA by 50% again out of parking revenue.

    UCLA offers a 50% discount on passes for all six transit operators that serve their campus, not just Culver CItyBus and Big Blue Bus. This is because they aren’t just trying to compel students not to drive to campus; it’s because the bigger challenge is compelling staff and visitors to leave their cars at home. UCLA also runs a robust vanpool program, which transports about 2000 people from as close as Silverlake (that’s a legacy vanpool imho) to like Victorville.

    UCLA’s parking rates are not quite as dynamic as Don would have liked, though he tried so very, very hard. UCLA is a built out campus and any new project is basically in-fill. UCLA has nearly run out of buildable surface lots (Lot 36 excepted – but that’s already spoken for), so it knocked down a parking structure built at great expense to put in a conference center. There will be a net loss in spaces. I am ecstatic.

  • Sirinya Matute

    Many universities will include a transit pass into student fees, not tuition — so they get passed through in a student government / participation fee. Every student government is different but basically my understanding is that many places have to put it to a student vote. This doesn’t mean there isn’t wiggle room for professional staff to suggest and advocate for it. In fact, Donald Shoup and his grad students drove a lot of the initial interest in BruinGo; Don was on UCLA’s transportation advisory board. But nonetheless, students eventually have to say yes.

  • Sirinya Matute

    It doesn’t seem like anybody there is talking, so all we can do is speculate. My best guess is that they needed to shift those dollars to upping campus shuttles, and they knew that the take rate on parking spaces to a demographic that probably included a substantial number of people who don’t even *own* a car would be low. (Speaking solely for myself)

  • calwatch

    If the carpoolers can sell parking passes to other people, or give them away to students that they are teaching or whatever, that might be beneficial.

  • calwatch

    Private universities don’t play by these rules. For instance, in the recent Foothill Transit student pass program, the University of La Verne unilaterally imposed the pass on their students and staff. http://file.lacounty.gov/bos/supdocs/77750.pdf This, unfortunately means that USC gets to do what they want, as long as their AVR meets the AQMD goals.

  • DTLARes

    They are non-transferable.

  • dreambeliever11

    What about personal safety, cars are much safer than mass transit! I will carry a permitted concealed weapon on the bus!

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