How to get involved

It’s time for riders and city residents to participate in the discussion about whether Tucson’s buses and streetcars should remain free to ride.

The Tucson City Council made bus and streetcar rides free during the pandemic to help limit the spread of the COVID-19. Now the council needs to decide whether to keep the ticket price free and how to pay for the transit system’s operations without fare revenue.

City leaders will make decisions at the council meeting on June 7 as part of the budget approval process. The public can contact their city council representatives before the meeting or participate in the meeting in person or online to make their voices heard. 

Rides are currently free through June 30 through the use of federal grants. The city council is expected to decide to keep free fares through the end of the calendar year while officials work on policy and funding questions.

One of the biggest lingering financial questions for the council is: Are fares paying for anything more than the systems, tech and people who issue tickets and enforce payment?

Another is a question about values. Should tax-funded transit be available to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay — like public libraries, schools, parks and public safety?

“At the end of the day, we have public institutions that are free and accessible to the public and I see public transit as an extension of that,” said Vice Mayor Lane Santa Cruz, who represents Ward 1.

Alternatively, council member Steve Kozachik said the city could charge fares to riders who can afford to pay and use that money to invest in making buses cleaner. 

While other U.S. cities have gone fareless, using various models, including one in Oregon that saw a 37.9% increase in ridership after doing so, Tucson stands out as the only larger city in Arizona to continue keeping ridership free.

And a new topic has been added to the discussion — safety. The city’s mask requirements on buses resulted in 15 assaults on drivers so far this year and backdoor boarding rules resulted in shouting matches, Sun Tran officials said. Those rules have been removed.

However, a Sun Tran security analysis found an increase in safety issues prior to the pandemic.

Santa Cruz said safety concerns need to be addressed with policy but they don’t need to be tied to whether transit is accessible and affordable.

The city paid for a team of national transportation consultants from Nelson/Nygaard to analyze the transit fares and make recommendations. That study cost about $100,000 of federal grant money. And while the recommendations from that study have been discussed at the city’s Transit Task Force, the report has not been made available to the city council or the public.

The report is expected to be part of the discussion at the city council meeting June 7.

Arizona Luminaria requested the report from several officials at the city and Sun Tran but did not receive the document before publishing this article.

People get off and on a Sun Tran bus at the Ronstadt Transit Center in downtown Tucson
Riders at the Ronstadt Transit Center in downtown Tucson May 19, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson for AZ Luminaria

The transit discussion so far

Tucson’s public transportation system, which includes Sun Link, Sun Tran, and Sun Van services, has been free of charge for all riders since March 2020 to reduce contact between drivers and riders.

Before the pandemic, about 60,000 people a day rode Sun Tran buses. At the low point in the pandemic, when people were using buses for essential rides only, about 35,000 people used the system. Now riders are coming back, with about 49,000 people using the system each day, said Steve Spade, general manager of Tucson’s transit systems, at a May Tucson Transit Task Force meeting.

Bus ridership was up 9% year over year and streetcar ridership was up 133% in April compared to April 2021, according to a Sun Tran report.

The fares collected on Tucson’s transit systems pay for about 20% of transit costs. The remainder is paid by taxpayers.

Some riders are concerned that reviving fares will create economic hardships for people who are struggling to recover from the pandemic, as well as facing the effects of high inflation and rising housing costs.

“We have a large percentage of folks that are in technical poverty,” Desiree Collins, a transit rider who works for a nonprofit, told Arizona Luminaria. “I can’t imagine trying to add that to the list of things when people are thinking about childcare and childcare deserts and food and everything.”

During this unexpected no-fares transit experiment, a conversation grew about the potential benefits of a free-fare system. Those advantages include speeding up the system by not waiting to collect fares at stops, as well as providing social and economic equity in transportation access for those who can’t afford a vehicle or don’t drive.

The disadvantage is “we’re going to take more money from the general fund to backstop our operations,” said Rhett Crowninshield, transit administrator at the Tucson Department of Transportation, at a task force meeting.

Without fares, the system could require cuts, more money from the city’s general fund or federal grants.

Those questions about shifting policies and dollars will be on the table at the city council meeting.

Safety concerns bubble up

Safety has become part of the discussion about the disadvantages of a fare-free transit system after the task force received a letter from the secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Local 104, the union that represents drivers. 

In the letter, Karla Schumann writes that “conditions have deteriorated, lawlessness abounds, and violence is commonplace” since fares were eliminated.

There have been 15 assaults on drivers so far in 2022. Six of those assaults were related to incidents in which drivers told a rider to wear a mask. That’s according to Sun Tran data shown to the task force at a meeting on May 26.

There were 47 assaults in 2021 and 25 were related to mask arguments.

Masks are no longer required on Sun Tran buses.

Back-door boarding also contributed to shouting matches between riders and drivers because of the physical distance between them, said John Zukas, Sun Tran director of safety and security. 

Sun Tran buses returned to front-door boarding in March.

Suzanne Schafer, a former Transit Task Force member, has countered the safety concerns as being overblown by the Teamsters to bolster the argument for reinstating fares.

In a May letter to Mayor Regina Romero that Schafer shared publicly, she wrote that while safety for passengers and bus drivers should be taken seriously, the Teamsters letter was skewed. She said it left out key information such as most of the issues being “largely confined to a couple routes” — for example, between the Laos and Ronstadt transit centers — and “many of the most severe issues raised relate to activities around bus stops and transit stations which are accessible without paying anyway.”  Schafer argued for targeted interventions on routes with documented problems.

Paramount to a fair conversation over safety and security issues is viewing the data over a longer period that’s not tied to a time when people were frustrated by masks and COVID-19 precautions, Schafer wrote.

“The letter raises some very serious security concerns, but these are the same concerns that were brought to the task force repeatedly before the pandemic,” she wrote.

Sun Tran trains drivers to use an “ask once” policy. Drivers are supposed to ask riders to pay a fare or wear a mask once but to call security if they feel like they need to ask again, Zukas said. 

“Assault” can mean a rider throws a coffee on a driver, spits on a driver, or pushes a partition against the driver. Few of the situations are “serious violence,” Zukas said.

A woman wearing a security guard jacket, a tactical vest with radios, a black/white/blue flag mask, and sunglasses on her head
A screenshot of a photo of a transit center security guard that was included in a presentation to the Tucson Transit Task Force about bus safety. Sun Tran started contracting with American Guard Services last year.

Sun Tran officials said they’ve seen significant increases in drug use and mental health issues, which are problems a transit system can’t address — drivers aren’t social workers, Spade said — but they said they can partner with other community organizations.

A Sun Tran security analysis in 2018 found an increase in aggressive behavior and illegal activity before the pandemic — a sign that safety problems may not be correlated with free fares.

Sun Tran officials told the Transit Task Force about some of the changes they already have made. Those include: 

  • Doubling spending on security, from $500,000 a year to more than $1 million a year
  • Hiring a new director of safety and security
  • Changing security contractors last year and adding additional security guards
  • Writing a safety plan
  • Replacing outdated surveillance cameras
  • Hiring seven cleaning employees and spent $800,000 a year on cleaning
  • Starting to partner with social service agencies to provide services at transit centers and alongside security guards
  • And training security guards on mental health first aid

Riders’ complaints about Sun Tran haven’t changed much in the past few years. Sun Tran received 294 complaints in April, compared to 285 complaints in April 2019, before the pandemic, according to Sun Tran reports.

What’s next for the fare discussion

To continue to improve safety and efficiency, Sun Tran wants to add a touchless fare system on buses, like the system already in place on streetcars. Sun Tran already spent $1.2 million last year on the hardware and software technology. 

The city manager’s recommended budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 adds $5 million for capital projects for Sun Tran improvements.

Recommendations about fare technology are part of a $100,000 fare analysis the city paid Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates to complete. The funding came from a Federal Transit Administration grant.

Tucson Transit Services Coordinator Chris Blue presented some of the recommendations from the report at a January meeting of the Transit Task Force. However, the report hasn’t been made available to the task force, the city council or the public.

A man boards a bus with his walker and his service dog at the Ronstadt Transit Center in downtown Tucson
A rider boards a bus at the Ronstadt Transit Center in downtown Tucson May 19, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson for AZ Luminaria

The goal of the study was to develop recommendations for the city council. The consultants used pre-pandemic 2019 data for their analysis.

The recommendations include installing and upgrading contactless fare validator devices. That project is underway while the city council discusses whether to charge fares at all.

A future phase could include equipping buses with WiFi so people can use credit cards and smartphone wallets to pay fares.

The consultants recommended simplifying the fare structure, including eliminating some types of passes, like student passes and express fares. They also recommended lowering some fares and capping fares for frequent riders. But details of that plan have not been made public.

Blue said the current fare structure is confusing and convoluted, with multiple fare types, pass types and upcharges.

“It’s one of the messier fare structures that the consultant has seen, to be perfectly honest,” he said in January.

Blue said the recommendations provide “safer ways to board transit, more distance between riders and drivers, certainly more payment options. It will speed up boarding, it enhances mobile pay options using your mobile wallet, and the fare capping will also preserve access for riders.”

Some task force members were concerned about spending money on new fare-collection devices when the city could potentially end fares.

Task force member Milczarek said it’s good planning for Sun Tran to look at the future of fare collection and not assume the city will eliminate fares.

Milczarek asked about a combination of payment options, allowing free or low fares for those who can’t pay and charging those who can.

“A lot of people not only can afford to pay a transit fee but if they get good quality transportation they’ll be happy to pay it, and I think that should be a consideration,” he said in January. “Fees should be considered because it’s guaranteed money that can help the program survive and improve service.”

Crowninshield, the transit administrator, said “we had the lowest economy rate in the country prior to going fare free, so we’ve always tried to help our most vulnerable.”

The economy fare was 75 cents in 2019 and the regular fare was $1.75.

Blue said the proposed fare structure will be “the most equitable fare structure the city, should we move forward, will have ever had.”

Students wearing backpacks and one student with a skateboard get on a bus at Euclid Avenue and University Boulevard
Riders board a bus at Euclid Avenue and University Boulevard May 16, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson for AZ Luminaria

Could schools help pay?

The city council is also interested in partnering with the university, community college, and school districts to help pay for student rides.

In 2019 the University of Arizona bought 3,200 transit passes for students and employees. The money came from parking fees. But now that many employees are working from home and many students are living in apartments close to campus, parking revenue is down and the university couldn’t have bought the same number of bus tickets during the pandemic, said Jim Sayre, executive director of Parking and Transportation Services at the University of Arizona.

If the city starts charging fares again, Sayre said his department would need to evaluate whether it can afford to bring back subsidized passes.

Pima Community College doesn’t track how many students use city buses and doesn’t currently buy or subsidize bus passes for students.

JobPath, a local workforce development program, has provided bus passes for its program participants to get to school at Pima Community College campuses.

“Accessing bus passes as a third party was often challenging, so we had to rely on participants going to the bus center or to the Pima College West Campus Bookstore to purchase them and then be reimbursed,” said Jessica Normoyle, JobPath Director of Operations.

“Students were required to pay up front for a monthly expense they couldn’t afford. Accessing bus passes was a barrier for students, so free fares for SunTran and SunLink rides has helped make travel easier for JobPath participants.”

Buses parked at the Ronstadt Transit Center in downtown Tucson May 19, 2022. Credit: Michael McKisson for AZ Luminaria

Could more riders help the climate?

Another part of the discussion about fares will be how to incentivize city residents to use transit instead of cars.

Vice Mayor Santa Cruz said she has heard from many constituents, including young people, who have said transit is a game changer for them. 

“We need to rethink how we move around in our cities,” she said. “Imagine if young people get used to riding the bus and we have a generation that thinks differently about how they move around town.”

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.