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USC cuts subsidy for transit passes, angers employees

USC students have filed a complaint with the US Dept. of Education regarding the school's handling of cases of sexual assaults.
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FILE: University of Southern California eliminated an employee transit pass subsidy, prompting calls for officials to reverse their decision.

The University of Southern California is getting pushback and drawing criticism after cutting an employee subsidy for bus and train passes.

In June, the university emailed employees to announce it would no longer offer $30 per month to employees who purchased a transit pass, which otherwise cost $100. Instead, the university's transportation services office offered transit users three free parking passes per month to use at the University Park Campus.

Many companies offer benefits like discounted transit passes or priority parking for carpools to encourage more green commuting practices and reduce demand for expensive parking spaces. USC funded its transit subsidies largely with parking revenue, but according to a website post from officials, the budget wasn't big enough to cover the cost.

"The elimination of the subsidy was carefully considered and compared with other available alternatives," according to the statement. 

USC's rideshare subsidy program, including transit users and carpools, had grown to serve about 3,000 staff members, earning it several awards for reducing air pollution from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. 

The university is well-served by public transit, with three stops on the Expo light rail line, DASH and Metro bus service and university-run shuttle service to Union Station.

As the largest private employer in the city of Los Angeles, USC has promoted itself as a leader in sustainability. This is among the reasons why the move to eliminate transit subsidies is jarring to faculty member Lisa Schweitzer, who studies transportation issues.

"When I read this, I thought, 'They'll get so much blowback on this, they won't really do it,'" she said. "This is such a bad move."

In recent days, Schweitzer has been firing off blog posts criticizing the university's decision. She said she understands from a budgeting perspective why it might make sense for the transportation services office to cut the subsidy. But she said she hopes the university will reconsider and find another, perhaps novel funding source.

Faculty members and students on social media have called for a petition urging the university to reverse the transit pass policy or take the issue to the Faculty Senate for review.

The policy makes USC an outlier among such comparable institutions as UCLA, University of California, Berkeley, Stanford and Harvard. All offer employees at least 50 percent subsidies for transit.

When UCLA instituted its program in 2000, researchers found that employee transit use increased by 137 percent, reducing parking demand. The university could slow the building of expensive parking garages, estimated to cost about $20,000 per space, according to the researchers.

Schweitzer believes building USC parking garages on valuable city land is a wasted opportunity.

"I would love to see one of those parking structures turned into international student housing or something that supported our programs," she said.