Allen Benz came to the Tucson City Council budget meeting wearing a red “Make Sun Tran great again” hat and a yellow “Tucson Bus Riders Union” T-shirt.

Benz uses the bus for groceries, shopping, and anything other than South Tucson neighborhood trips. 

Buses have been free to ride for two years and he appreciates having a little more money to spend while he’s not spending it on bus fares. 

Before the meeting, he spent the day at the public library researching old Tucson city budgets to look at passenger revenue. He wanted to be informed when speaking to elected officials making decisions about the future of fare-free public transit.

Tucson is the only Arizona city that has kept the policy, which was adopted for safety across the state and nation in the pandemic.

“We should keep the fare-free system that’s currently in place,” Benz told the city council, speaking on behalf of the bus riders union. 

He noted the free shuttle system in parts of Tempe, and asked the council to look at how other cities are making it work.

Tucson leaders decided to keep buses and streetcars free to ride for the rest of the year, buying time to discuss how to pay for public transit and keep riders and drivers safe.

“What’s been missing around a lot of these conversations is the experience and voices of transit users,” Vice Mayor Lane Santa Cruz said at the June 7 council meeting.

This is the second time the council has extended the zero-fare experiment, which started two years ago as part of the city’s COVID-19 safety protocols, along with increased cleaning and security on Sun Tran buses and Sun Link streetcars.

The extension gives city leaders more time to decide whether public transit should be free for everyone to ride and funded by taxpayers, the same way taxes pay for public parks but they’re free for anyone to use.

In a memo to the city manager and the transportation director, Mayor Regina Romero and Vice Mayor Lane Santa Cruz asked for more information about what other cities are doing to provide fare-free transit and what data about ridership and safety could help inform decisions about the cost of tickets. 

They also asked for a “robust” community engagement process and a list of recommendations for improving safety.

“Until we receive both this quantitative and qualitative data, it would be premature to make a decision to reinstate fares or implement a new fare collection system,” the two council leaders said in the memo.

City manager Michael Ortega committed to providing an analysis in September.

The fare-free experiment

Bus ridership in Tucson is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, with about 49,000 people riding buses each day, and streetcar usage has rapidly increased.

Tucson is one of a few cities nationwide looking for ways to make public transit free to ride. Alexandria, Virginia, is on the same road as Tucson. Romero and Santa Cruz also asked about Kansas City as a model.

Some U.S. cities have gone fareless using fees, including one in Oregon that saw a 37.9% increase in ridership after opting for a transit operations payment, about $3.44 monthly for single-family residential utility customers.

And other cities are trying smaller-scale experiments. This week the mayor of Flagstaff announced public transit will be free on Mondays through July. Flagstaff also had suspended fares for safety reasons at the start of the pandemic but started collecting fares again in October 2020. Tempe has had a free neighborhood shuttle system since 2007 and pays for it with a dedicated transit tax.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free ride. Tucson is spending federal grant dollars to help keep the system running with no fare revenue. 

Tucson doesn’t have a dedicated funding source for transit, which means money comes from the general fund, which also pays for parks, public safety and many other city programs.

In May, Tucson voted to extend an existing half-cent sales tax for 10 years. Prop. 411 is intended to fund road repairs and street-safety projects, but it doesn’t include transit projects.

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. While recommendations from the study have been discussed at the city’s Transit Task Force, the report has not been made available to the public.

The study was not part of the discussion at the council meeting, as community leaders had expected.

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

In 2018, before the pandemic, the public transit system in Tucson cost about $65 million. Fares paid for about $11 million of those costs, about 17%, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. 

Where and how to make up $11 million is the question. Before the pandemic, Tucson was collecting that money 75 cents at a time for economy fares and $1.75 for regular fares.

City staff members mingle with members of the public at the June 7 Tucson City Council meeting. 
Photo by Becky Pallack 

C.J. Jones, a member of the Tucson chapter of Jobs With Justice, told the city council he strongly supports free public transit. 

“We think that public transportation is a public service, similar to parks and recreation and the swimming pools the city has, and we hope that service is not taken away,” he said at a May 19 meeting.

University High School student Jesus Mendoza called on the council to keep transit free for teens, who use the city buses to get to school and sports.

Benz has been riding Tucson buses and organizing for bus riders for years. At the June 7 meeting, he addressed the safety incidents cited recently by the Teamsters Local 104, the union that represents drivers, as reason for reinstating fares. 

“There’s a lot of talk there but there’s no data that has been produced to back up those allegations,” he said. “To quote the old TV commercial from the 80s, ‘Where’s the beef?’”

Riley Merline, who recently became a member of the Transit Task Force, said the city should support fare-free transit on a long-term basis and maybe permanently to allow “anyone and everyone” to get around Tucson.

“The more I learn about it, the more I read about it, the more I look at other cities trying it, the more I support it, the more I like it as a concept,” Merline said. “I think it’s something many cities are doing a good job with but also something that every city should be striving to achieve.”

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