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FairfaxEducationMore FCPS students get access to free Metrobus rides

More FCPS students get access to free Metrobus rides

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Since 2018, Fairfax County’s Free Student Bus Pass + Metrobus program has let Justice High School students ride for free on Metrobuses and Fairfax Connector and City of Fairfax CUE buses.

Fairfax County and Fairfax city officials gathered at George C. Marshall High School Sept. 22 to celebrate the initiative’s expansion to that school, its Davis Center and Annandale and Falls Church high schools.

The change means that students there, who already could ride Fairfax Connector and CUE buses without charge, now have access to Metrobuses, as well.

Justice High School senior Mercedes Argueta told the crowd she often uses her bus pass to go to work and visit friends. In addition to saving her money, taking the bus is a step toward adulthood, said Argueta, who also is learning how to drive.

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“You feel a lot more independent and responsible,” she said.

Placards set in front of the stage in Marshall High’s auditorium showed enlargements of the colorful new bus passes, which list the owner’s high school.

Fairfax County’s Free Student Bus Program began in fall 2015 and let all students at Fairfax County Public Schools’ middle and high schools, plus private- and home-schooled students, ride Fairfax Connector and (since 2016) city of Fairfax CUE buses for free. Students with special SmarTrip cards may ride those buses between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day.

County officials began the initiative as a pilot program at the suggestion of Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) and then-Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).

McKay told the audience he knew from his service on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board that Metrobus that some surrounding jurisdictions offered such a service and that there were bus stops in front of many county high schools.

“We knew that students were using transit even before we started this program,” he said. “But to be able to do it for free for our students accomplishes so many of our goals.”

The Free Student Bus Program allows students to attend after-school activities and sporting events, as well as jobs, he said.

As of May this year, students had taken more than 2 million trips using the program. While students accounted for roughly 6.5 percent of Fairfax Connector’s ridership before the pandemic struck in March 2020, the youths’ share had risen to 7.6 percent as of this April.

Justice High students have taken more than 100,000 free Metrobus trips under that school’s pilot program. More than half of the school’s students have taken advantage of the initiative, said School Board Chairman Rachna Sizemore Heizer.

McKay said he expected student bus ridership would continue to grow and that he hoped this would drive decisions on the creation of future routes.
“Transit is more than just buses,” McKay said. “It literally connects people with the world and opportunities that otherwise might be outside of their reach.”

Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence) grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and said buses were how she used to get around in that city. Buses also were crucial for taking students on field trips when she was a middle-school teacher in Washington, D.C., she said.

Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill), who chairs the board’s Transportation Committee, said the Free Student Bus Program exists because of voluntary cooperation from several transit agencies.

“They don’t have to work together,” Alcorn said. “It’s a great mission.”

New FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid called the bus program a “great equalizer” and said school officials did not want any students to be disadvantaged when it came to accessing opportunities.

“When all of our purposes align, we can do anything,” Reid said.

The CUE bus system currently allows all passengers to ride gratis, and Fairfax officials recently approved a pilot program to continue that policy for four years, said city of Fairfax Mayor David Meyer. The city was the first jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan area to waive bus fees during the pandemic, he added.

Exposing teenagers to beneficial activities such as transit usage makes it likelier that they will continue those habits in the future, Meyer said.

Fairfax Connector pays $2 for each of those trips, which must only be in Northern Virginia, Kala Quintana, marketing head for Fairfax Connector, told the Board of Supervisors’ Transportation Committee in June.

During the 2019-20 school year before the pandemic, Justice students averaged 4,500 trips per month. Post-COVID, more than 52 percent of the youths frequently used their Student Bus Pass cards and most are riding only on the approved routes, Quintana told supervisors.

School administrators issue warnings to violators and few students have had their cards revoked so far, she added.

Justice High School senior Mercedes Argueta describes how she has benefited from Fairfax County Public Schools’ student-bus-pass program during a Sept. 22, 2022, event at George C. Marshall High School. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
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