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Photo by Tenaya HillsCarina takes the bus from home to work and back every day. Until last December, she would also ride at least three times a week to the Cambodian Family Center in Santa Ana, where she attends English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. But ever since the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) raised bus fares from $1 to $1.25 at the beginning of the year, she's not showing up as often. "I need to think about it a bit more," admits the factory worker. "If I spend too much money on buses, then I don't have anything left to feed my family."
The other ESL students at the Cambodian Family Center, located in an industrial park near Santa Ana's notorious Minnie Street barrio, share similar tales. Celestre, a mother of four, is thinking of quitting class altogether. Ana's son, a student at Santa Ana College, can only afford to take the bus in the morning since the fee hike. In the afternoon, he walks about three and a half miles back to their apartment near the corner of Lyon Street and Chestnut Avenue. "It's too much for him to pay twice a day," Ana says, shaking her head.
When a reporter tells them the kids at Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine ride the same OCTA buses for free, these immigrant men and women marvel in envy. "If I have a free ticket, I can study anywhere," sighs a Cambodian man in his late 20s who immigrated to the United States three months ago. "But if I have to pay, then I stay where I am."
CSUF and UCI students get the complimentary bus lift thanks to U-Pass, a partnership between OCTA and both schools. OCTA spokesman Michael Litschi says the agency wants to implement U-Pass in all county community colleges to ease student commute times. As current OCTA and college policy stands, though, nontraditional students such as Ana and her Cambodian Family Center comadresaren't even eligible for reduced student rates, let alone allowed to ride the bus for gratis.
OCTA introduced U-Pass at CSUF two years ago to alleviate the campus' infamous parking shortage. CSUF and UCI pay OCTA 75 cents every time a Titan or Anteater boards a bus—50 cents less than the standard boarding fee. Thanks to an enthusiastic response, the 2004 U-Pass bill at each school was steep—an estimated $193,393 for CSUF and $133,493 at UCI.
Both schools pay for the program by drawing from parking-lot ticket fines, a luxury not viable at the county's cash-strapped community colleges. So as a would-be panacea, OCTA offers students semester passes for $120, or $75 for the quarter. But current OCTA policy allows only full-time students to purchase a college pass or enroll in the U-Pass program. "It's really up to the school's discretion" to determine what constitutes a full-time student, says Litschi. "So they could potentially sell to adults in night school. We just ask the schools to ensure the students have a valid college ID in order to purchase a pass."
Such a requirement is problematic for adult ESL learners, who tend to attend classes only a couple of times per week and thus don't qualify as full-time students. "My students mainly work for minimum wage, and they're trying to work through school as well," says Dave Hall, who teaches English every Monday at the Cambodian Family Center and is a member of the Continuing Education Faculty Association in the Rancho Santiago College District. "Not offering them a free-bus program or at least a discount pass is shutting the door on them."
Under Hall's encouragement, Cambodian Family Center students wrote letters to the OCTA board of trustees in October, when it was considering a fee hike, urging them in vain to consider otherwise. Although the letters were kindly received, they didn't dissuade the trustees from approving the rate increases, the first in 13 years.
Litschi says OCTA wants to increase student ridership, going so far as to consider allowing students in technical and trade schools to use discounted passes. Even that measure wouldn't make the Cambodian Family Center moms eligible, however. So all Carina can do is cut back on her lessons and study at home. "Either we all pay or we all ride for free," she says. "They have to give the same opportunity to all students."