Of the benefits available to WMU students, few are more generous than the Bronco and Metro Transit busing systems, which can take students anywhere on campus or in the wider Kalamazoo area with just the swipe of a Bronco Card. But while many students have assumed that their “free” bus ride was merely buried somewhere within tuition bills and extraneous fees, the real source of funding is a markedly more curious one: Parking Services.
According to Carol Dedow, the captain of WMU’s Parking Services department, a small portion of bus expenditure—around $375,000—is paid through general funds, while a decidedly larger fraction falls upon Parking Services, who expended nearly $1.26 million on the bus systems during the 2012 fiscal year alone.
So where is that money coming from? Not through the university, who have maintained Parking Services as a primarily self-funded organization for years. Instead, the money stems from Parking Services’ profit streams, including parking meters, event parking charges, temporary permits, parking violations and student vehicle registration stickers.
Dedow notched this year’s number of student permits at 11,792 and growing, covering the period from Aug. 1, 2012 to March 4. That number doesn’t encompass any daily, weekly or otherwise temporary permits, but it does include all one-semester or annual-period stickers—as well as their hefty price tags of $180 and $300 each, respectively.
Permit prices have remained consistent since 2003.
For Dedow, whose department is also responsible for debt service from previous projects and internal employee compensation, as well as for the repair and maintenance of all campus parking lots, ramps and roads, supporting the bus systems isn’t exactly a responsibility that jibes with the Parking Services job description.
“I do not know why the bus charge is not included in tuition and never has been,” Dedow said. “It has been that way for many years. These decisions are made by the Board of Trustees, President Dunn, Vice President Van Der Kley and those employed in the University Budgets and Financial Planning Department.”
Regardless of who is making the decisions, student drivers have not necessarily been pleased to discover that a portion of their parking permit charge is being applied to chauffeur other students around campus—especially since students who exclusively ride the bus really are getting free rides.
“I love WMU, I really do. There are few things I’ve been unhappy with in my four years here,” said Jarred Small, a senior music education major set to graduate in the spring. “But when I was told that a portion of my parking pass payment was helping to fund other students’ bus rides to class, I was pissed. Why do the students that drive to class have to pay the way for those that don’t? I’ve never once taken the bus!”
Small is hardly in the minority: unlike schools like University of Michigan, which have historically not allowed underclassman to have cars on campus, many freshman at WMU go home frequently or live off campus from the start, and that means more students using cars on a regular basis—and fewer going for public transportation.
“My commuter parking pass is already priced at an exorbitant rate anyway,” Small said. “There’s no reason why those that ride the bus shouldn’t have to pay at least an equal amount to those who don’t.
For her part, Dedow was in agreement with the student voice. She believes that one group of students should not be responsible for paying the way of another, no matter the circumstances. But Dedow also pointed out that, at this point, changing funding structures, especially within rigid public university tuition requirements, might be easier said than done.
“It is my opinion that those who ride the bus should pay for the bus,” Dedow said. “Those students who park on campus are required to pay for parking. I view it as a ‘user’ fee. Unfortunately, other issues need to be considered when deciding tuition rates and fees. The state often places limitations regarding tuition increases and can withhold state funding if the university does not comply with certain restrictions.”
But if that’s the case, then how are other public universities in the region dealing with similar issues? Small, who has spent the past six months sifting through graduate school prospects, actually took transportation concerns into account after his experience at WMU.
“Michigan State’s bus system has riders pay for a semester bus pass or on a week-long or per-ride basis,” Small said. “And every student at Ohio State, from undergrad to doctoral, pays a flat semester fee that goes toward the Columbus public transportation system and helps serve the university community.”
Clearly, each school’s method of dealing with public transportation is different. University of Michigan, for example, provides a similar bus system to Western’s, where rides are free with a valid I.D. card. But their monetary support comes from federal funds or directly through the university—not from a specific group of students.
Meanwhile, Parking Services may be getting to the point where they cannot even afford to support the bus system, with or without the willing support of students paying for parking permits. According to Dedow, recent economic hard times and high gas prices mean more students are foregoing cars and opting for other ways of getting to class, a situation that has left her department in a tough spot.
“Parking Services expenditures have increased and revenue has decreased,” Dedow said. “More students are riding the bus or utilizing more sustainable options for their transportation needs, and fewer students are purchasing permits.”
If Parking Services is falling off financially, that spells trouble for the university, regardless of whether or not the boost in sustainable transportation methods reflects well on their green initiatives. And if more money needs to be found, there’s little doubt as to where it will come from: out of student pockets or through inflated permit prices.
Dedow stated that there is no plan to boost parking charges at this time. However, last spring brought the first increase in parking ticket penalties since 1998, suggesting that other shifts might not be far off.
Small, for one, thinks a shift is necessary, but hopes for one that would require bus riders to shoulder a bit of the weight.
“When I’m funding an off-campus student’s daily trip to class, I wonder if there’s an alternative means of balancing what’s fair and equal,” he said. “No more free rides.”
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