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By Charles Earthman


    The Sonoma County Supervisors unanimously approved a one-year pilot program that will allow veterans and college students to ride county buses free of charge.  The pilot program could provide fare subsidies for nearly 300,000 riders a year, based on county estimates. Veterans holding a Veterans Administration (VA) ID card or a Sonoma County Veterans ID card will be allowed free use of Sonoma County Transit.


   This program is the first of its kind in the nation and the primary beneficiaries will be college students at the two Santa Rosa Junior College campuses and those attending Sonoma State University in Cotati. The $311,000 cost for the year-long program will be paid from the county general fund to Sonoma County Transit, a separate county agency.


   Several veterans’ organizations in Sonoma County have been trying to work out a way to have some kind of bus pass program to assist needy veterans. Organizations like Purple Heart Chapter 78, Vet Connect, and others have purchased bus tickets that were given to needed vets at the weekly Vet Connect Clinic and at the Santa Rosa VA Outpatient Clinic.  These methods were inefficient and had problems such as funding and accountability issues.    


   John Logan, Adjutant of Purple Heart Chapter 78 and past Purple Heart California Department Commander, got the idea for this program while at a Military Order of the Purple Heart leadership conference in Springfield, Virginia, where he heard about a city wide program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The idea was passed along to Supervisor Mike McGuire who acted quickly to add it to a proposed subsidized fare pilot program for students.


   The process was rapidly developed and put into place by the efficient staff from the County’s Transportation and Public Works Department and County Administration Office, including Transit Manager Bryan Albee and his staff and the Road Ad Hoc Committee.  They all worked quickly and diligently to develop this pilot program for students and veterans.  The County Board of Supervisors recognizes the importance of this project on this segment of the population and passed the measure by unanimous consent.  The one-year pilot project is in place and will start January 1, 2015.


    Supporters from Santa Rosa Junior College and the North Bay Organizing Project, which has long advocated for free bus rides, applauded the action.  County officials hope this will boost ridership and increase access to college campuses and also help eliminate problems that veterans face in getting to medical appointments and other destinations. 


   “This is a major step in the right direction,” said Gerry La Londe-Berg, who has led the effort for the North Bay Organizing Project, a coalition of neighborhood, immigrant, religious, and environmental groups and activists. “It’s going to help people who are economically disadvantaged. It will literally allow people go to school and help people get out of their cars.”


   This is a win win--not only for veterans and students, but for the whole county.  It will provide a greener footprint by increasing ridership on public transit, which can lead to more buses on more routes and also reduce automobile use.  It will also provide an economic boost to students and veterans, allowing them to spend their minimal funds on books and living expenses.  Uplifting the whole community--this will be a good thing for all.

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