Colleges say NFTA bus program costs too much, doesn’t help low-income students

Mar 11, 2020

Jay Reeves, a 24-year-old digital film student at Villa Maria, is a bus rider who falls through the cracks.

Reeves doesn’t get help subsidizing his transit costs to get between his home in Riverside and school on Buffalo’s east side near Cheektowaga. To get to classes, what could be a 20-minute car commute takes him up to an hour-and-a-half on two buses.

Villa Maria students Erick Vazquez (left) and Jay Reeves
Credit WBFO Photo/Kate Kaye

Reeves needs the bus to achieve his goal of becoming a first assistant director on film sets someday, but he has trouble scraping together the $75 all at once to afford a monthly NFTA transit pass while paying for rent and other bills.

Instead, he buys a $5 bus pass each day he comes to school. “I’m spending more money in the long run but at the end of the day I just don’t have the money all at once,” Reeves said.

An NFTA program helps get students who attend five other local colleges on the bus and metro. Bryant and Stratton, SUNY Buffalo State, Canisius, Erie Community College and UB School of Medicine all take part in CRAM, the NFTA’s College Riders Accessing Metro program, according to the NFTA.

But some Buffalo schools including Villa Maria say it is too expensive and does not reduce the cost of helping low-income students get to an education.

The program, launched in 2004, is designed to ease the cost of public transit passes for students through a volume discount offered to their college. A monthly transit pass at retail costs $75, but participating schools pay around $50 per semester for each of every one of their enrolled students. Schools can pay for just a portion of students, but that increases the cost-per-student.

ECC, for example, charges all students attending classes on campus a $75 transportation fee each semester. That gets them a CRAM pass and use of the school shuttle and parking for only around $20 a month.

But the program no longer works for Medaille College, which was a CRAM participant and left the program in 2012. Today, Medaille buys $75 monthly passes at retail and shares the cost with students who want them.

Transportation is a “significant issue” for Villa Maria students, said Brian Emerson, the school’s VP for enrollment management. He said forty percent live in the city of Buffalo and twenty percent take the bus.

But the school can’t afford to participate in CRAM. Another local college that asked to remain anonymous also told WBFO it does not participate in the CRAM program because it costs too much.

Brian Emerson, VP for enrollment management at Villa Maria
Credit WBFO Photo/Kate Kaye

“The program requires the colleges to pass on all the costs to the student, or eat the cost, and eating the cost is just unrealistic for any college in Western New York,” said Emerson. Part of the problem, he said, is the program’s structure, which requires schools to buy passes at a discount for far more students than might actually use them.

“Passing on the fee to the students just raises their tuition, so it’s not exactly a win-win unless you can make some kind of calculation that you want all of your students to have a bus pass,” said Emerson.

Villa Maria does buy bus passes at retail for some students, allowing them to use their financial aid to cover the costs. “We have also just collected money internally to purchase bus passes to give to students in need,” Emerson said.

From the NFTA’s perspective, the CRAM program is a deal because schools are charged far less than what they’d pay were they to buy a pass for every student at retail. That, says the transit authority, allows schools to pass the savings on to students.

“From an NFTA standpoint, we’re probably coming out of it at a loss because a pass that we would normally sell for $75, we’re giving you at $50 for a whole semester,” said Gary Bennett, NFTA’s business development manager.

NFTA: No Discount Program for Low-income College Students

Bennett stressed the CRAM program is not modeled to make a profit. Instead, he said, it was designed to promote the use of public transportation, reduce traffic congestion and parking demand, eliminate the need for a car and reduce carbon emissions.

He said the schools that use the program seem to find value in it. “They utilize it and they love it. I mean we have multiyear contracts with them.”

However, CRAM was not intended specifically to help low-income students afford transportation.

“It’s not especially geared toward a particular socioeconomic group,” said Bennett. In fact, the NFTA does not offer any other transit discounts for low-income college students.

But riding the bus is a socioeconomic reality for students like Reeves. A 2017 report from Partnership for the Public Good showed in most of Buffalo’s east and west sides – where its lowest income communities are - more than 33% of households do not have a vehicle.

Villa Maria music student Erick Vazquez questioned why society emphasizes the need for a college degree without helping lower income students who struggle to afford transportation to travel to and from school. The “differently-abled” 32-year-old uses a wheelchair and gets a bus pass from a New York State education department program for people with disabilities.

“There’s always those steps on the road and the worst thing is those steps on the road are actually our transportation to the place to get that education.”

For students like Reeves and Vazquez, taking the bus is not about choosing to help the environment or reduce traffic congestion. It’s the only way they can get to school. And that seems to be at the heart of the disconnect between the NFTA's college transit program and the students who need it the most.

Emerson said he’d like to see the NFTA join existing discussions among local organizations and agencies to help Buffalo college students remove barriers to transit.

“It’s really important for these organizations to work together to try to make an impact, and it would be nice if the NFTA were a little bit more open to these conversations and to these ideas,” said Emerson. “They don’t seem to be very interested in finding new ways for accessibility and affordability at least at the college level that we’ve experienced.”