HARTFORD, CT – Transportation officials are looking to expand public transportation for students by adding private colleges to a program launched three years ago.

The program, dubbed “U-Pass,” allows students to utilize all public transportation services, including Metro-North, within the state. The department charges the schools a fee of $20 per student per semester to participate in the program.

The Department of Transportation said that since the UConn program’s inception in August 2017, students have made over 4 million passenger trips using U-Pass.

But early on Connecticut’s private colleges and universities wondered why they were left out.

John J. Petillo, president of Sacred Heart University, wrote in a 2017 editorial in the Courant that he felt the exclusion of these students was “discriminatory.”

“Giving these additional students access to bargain-rate, statewide commuting resources would make much more sense than limiting the pool to public college and university students only,” Petillo wrote. “This shortsighted decision should be reconsidered as soon as possible, especially now that the school year has begun and our students are already heading to classes, to work and to play.”

The program now includes UConn and the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System, which includes community colleges.

According to the department, other private colleges and universities quickly realized how the U-Pass program could benefit their students and asked how they could join in.

“Unfortunately, the Department has had to turn these schools away because the powers of the Commissioner do not allow the Department to enter into an agreement with a private entity in return for compensation,” DOT said in its rationale for expanding the program.

Under the proposal now being submitted to the Office of Policy and Management for legislative consideration, the Department of Transportation commissioner could be charged with designing a program to provide bus or rail transportation services to all college or university students in this state.

Such a program, the proposal states, if approved by the Office of Policy and Management, may allow the commissioner to negotiate and contract access to public transportation with any college, university, academy, school or other educational institution.

“The independent colleges in Connecticut are highly supportive of the DOT legislative proposal to expand UPASS to students at our institutions,” Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, said. “We’ve been in conversations with DOT about this for nearly two years. It’s a win/win for the state and our students. For the students, the UPASS program will expand access to work and internship opportunities in their region, as it has for students at our public counterparts.”

Widness said exposing students to public transit options might increase the likelihood that they consider staying in Connecticut after they graduate.

Increasing public transportation ridership could also mean more money for Connecticut.

U-Pass sales generate $800,000 annually for the DOT, which is far less than the individual rides would cost if the student had to purchase them on their own. However, increased ridership has other benefits.

“There is a potential to increase federal funding with increasing transit ridership,” the proposal states. “Funding is allocated by region based on ridership statistics. If Connecticut ridership outpaces ridership growth in nearby states, the state will be eligible for a larger portion of funds,” the proposal states.

When the program was unveiled two years ago, then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy defended the state paying for part of the initiative – stating Connecticut was decades behind neighboring states such as Massachusetts, which has a similar system that connects Boston University and Boston College students to downtown Boston.

“An investment in our transportation system is an investment in our economic development, and it makes great sense to considerably improve connections between campuses within our state’s flagship university,”  Malloy said at the time.

UConn students and CSUS students, from all campuses, are eligible to ride the bus at no charge simply by showing their student ID and a U-Pass obtained through the university, the costs of which are included in university fees.

The UConn and state collaboration was unveiled about the same time UConn’s downtown Hartford campus, which is located on Prospect Street at the site of the former Hartford Times newspaper building, opened in the fall of 2017.

Hartford officials praised the program saying it would bring more students – and dollars they spend – to businesses in downtown Hartford.

“The gain in ridership has helped Connecticut maintain and grow its total public transportation ridership,” DOT said in its proposal to expand the program.