It was Monday morning and Philip Thorp, 29, was riding the bus from Tucson’s Menlo Park east into downtown. Blue, his Siberian Husky service dog, was crouched on the floor under his feet, watching with his large blue eyes.

A Tucson native, Philip has been riding the bus since he was a teenager when he used to take it to Cholla High School. “It helps a lot that it’s free,” Philip says, praising the free fares.

He and Blue are frequent riders, and were riding the bus on an October morning to meet Philip’s uncle for a landscaping job. 

“You get more people, different kinds of people on the bus now,” Philip says, pointing to his left where a woman and her three kids were sitting. “Like this supermom over here.”

Melissa chuckled. She was dropping off her two eldest daughters to Mission View elementary school. Her youngest, a boy of 2, was sprawled in a stroller. Melissa says that she was riding the bus with about the same frequency as before the free fares, but appreciates saving the few extra dollars a day.

“I’m hoping to get a car soon,” she says.

Her main complaint with the bus is that it’s slow. “I got no problem with it being free, but I know somebody’s got to pay for it.”

Keeping public transportation free has been discussed and debated since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when Tucson started letting folks ride buses, shuttles and the streetcar free of charge.

Tucson is one of a few cities nationwide, and the only in Arizona, looking for ways to make public transit a free public service, like parks and libraries. Flagstaff also had suspended fares for safety reasons at the start of the pandemic but started collecting them again in October 2020. Tempe has had a free neighborhood shuttle system since 2007 and pays for it with a dedicated transit tax. Some other U.S. cities have gone fareless, including Richmond, Virginia, Corvallis, Oregon, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

A formal study from a team of national transportation consultants commissioned by the council notes that “many of the transit systems that are either already fare-free or include plans to continue beyond 2022 have diverse sources of funding including earmarked state funds from a mixture of state-level fees, taxes, or general budget support.”

After seven months or so of extending the fare-free experiment, listening to riders and experts and talking through ideas about how to pay for a fareless transit system, the council is nearing a decision.

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“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 a June 7 council meeting.

In July, Sun Tran, the operator of Tucson’s public transportation system, held a series of meetings to listen to riders and the general public. A survey of almost 2,500 local residents found that 80% support ongoing free fares.

The obvious benefits to both commuters and the city include increased ridership, fewer individual drivers on the road coughing out carbon dioxide plus generally increased mobility — all good for riders, good for the environment and a boon to the local economy.

And yet: public transportation has costs. Not only do the vehicles need to be purchased and cleaned and drivers need to be paid, but a long string of infrastructure, maintenance, cleaning and security needs drive up the cost of public transportation.

Tucson currently invests $45 million a year in public transportation, with a goal not only of simply getting people from Point A to Point B, but keeping that system equitable and accessible. The system of roads and public transportation are also two major tools for the city to adapt to the changing climate.

“In Tucson, we are working to shift the narrative to focus on people versus cars,” Mayor Regina Romero recently told Arizona Luminaria.

Searching for a solution

Shortly before the Tucson City Council study session on Oct. 5, Vice Mayor Santa Cruz wheeled up on her bicycle. 

Santa Cruz was heading into a meeting in which she and other council members were set to discuss whether Tucson residents should pay for public transit, or riders can just jump on buses, streetcars and vans without dropping a dime.

Overall ridership is significantly down from a decade ago. In 2012, there were just shy of 20 million riders in Tucson’s system. A 42-day transit workers strike in 2015 prompted the most precipitous decline in ridership, which continued falling until 2021 when it was under 11 million. Numbers amid the fare-free experiment have gone up in fiscal year 2022, to more than 13 million.

At the Oct. 5 session, council members both praised the service public transportation offers —  getting riders to work, school, restaurants or simply a cruise around town — and also lamented its shortfalls and potholes: routes are indirect, don’t cover some areas of town and can be painfully slow.

Ward 2 council member Paul Cunningham griped that bus stops, especially outside of central Tucson, are sometimes little more than a sign spiked into the dirt: no shade or bench for the long waits.

Council members armed with a new study into fare-free systems and public transit discussed solutions as they near a decision.

Does free transportation pay for itself by boosting the city economy? Should it be subsidized by taxes, grants, partnerships with businesses and institutions? Does the city have deep enough pockets to invest in the public service costs?

Peer studies

The council commissioned a formal study from a team of national transportation consultants from Nelson/Nygaard in which the above questions and many others were addressed.

The 63-page study, along with a separate 79-page assessment looked at ridership rates, fare structures, the benefits and challenges of free transit, and compared it all to a number of other similarly sized cities that have conducted their own experiments and studies on free fares. The study cost about $100,000 of federal grant money.

In total, the analysis reviewed 12 fare-free and five fare-collecting peer transit systems, including Toledo, Ohio; Olympia, Washington; and Durham, North Carolina, to serve as examples or warnings for Sun Tran.

The Tucson study included six different “fare scenarios,” ranging from simply lowering fares, eliminating express fares, offering a low-income fare-free program, fare-capping (which offers riders free passes if they’ve paid for the equivalent of a monthly pass) or free fares for all.

One of the proposals would lower the fares for non-cash paying riders, eventually end cash payments altogether, and simplify payment methods and structures by, for example, eliminating three-day passes and summer youth passes.

A number of the fare-free scenarios the city is considering have recently gained support from local University of Arizona partners, which is attractive to a number of Tucson council members.

In the end, it is the bottom line that’s the primary hang-up for the city.

Currently, there’s no clear source of funding for the continuation of free fares, besides the city of Tucson’s general funds. According to a 2020 report from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, collecting fares contributed almost $12 million to the operation of public transit. The city contributed almost $34 million and federal assistance added in $38 million. That approximately $12 million is the current hangup.

Reintroducing fares, however, doesn’t necessarily fix the problem either. The costs to reinstate fares are estimated to be about $367,500 up front, as well as ongoing annual costs for collection.

Suzanne Schafer, a member of the Transit Task Force and a longtime public transportation advocate, notes that it’s easy to calculate costs and projected revenue and see a net gain by returning to fare collection.

“But there are several things this leaves out,” she says, “in addition to the unpredictability of those numbers.”

What’s left out, she says, are the potential gains for the local economy due to free fares leading to greater mobility and more money in people’s pockets.

A study conducted by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, in collaboration with the Center for Economic Information at the University of Missouri Kansas City, tried to make that calculation. Eliminating fares for public transportation, the study found, would boost the regional GDP by between $13 and about $18 million dollars.

The Kansas City study also estimates that a fare-free policy would result in about 100 new jobs. In terms of environmental impact, the study estimates that light rail systems produce 62% less and bus transit produces 33% less greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the study, “Switching to riding public transportation is one of the most effective actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint, much more so than purchasing hybrid or electric vehicles.”

Another study, from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, notes, “Automobiles create enormous costs that are not reflected in the prices faced by drivers.”

The study cites vehicle emissions as the state’s largest and fastest growing source of global warming pollution. More driving also leads to more deaths and injuries, as well as increased asthma and other health problems.

Emissions and negative health impacts are much smaller when commuters use public transportation, especially when ridership is high, the study concludes.

Those benefits are not lost on Tucson’s leaders.

“Increasing ridership on our transit system is an important part of our climate strategy,” Romero said. “As we contend with more days of high heat, transit is a critical alternative to walking and biking for people in our community.”

College students hold signs with the hashtag #WhyIRide at the Tucson City Council meeting on Sept. 27, 2022. Credit: Becky Pallack

Looking for a partner

“Free transit is necessary in a time of great economic struggle and uncertainty,” Patrick Robles, the president of UA Student Association and a frequent public transit rider, told Arizona Luminaria.

He pointed to students’ and faculty’s increasing reliance on public transit, especially the streetcar. He argued that it’s safer for students who don’t want to be walking alone at night, and safer for everyone so that students don’t drink and drive or drink and bike.

Robles said that he’s had multiple conversations with UA President Robert Robbins about the issue, and that Robbins rode the streetcar in September with a number of students.

In a conversation with Robles, captured on video by student Alex Ray Sanchez, Robbins said, “It’s amazing how packed this is. You brought it to my attention early on in your tenure about how important it was to provide free transportation to students, and you had me at hello.”

Robbins added: “We’re going to work together to make that happen.”

That would have been welcome news to council members at the Oct. 5 meeting, during which they asked repeatedly if or who might help underwrite costs to keep fares free.

According to a recent newsletter from Ward 6 council member Steve Kozachik: “Staff is doing outreach to the UA and will be bringing us back a progress report along with ideas about how to move this forward.”

Decision pending

Despite the lengthy discussion and long study, another delay on the decision seems inevitable.

Council member Cunningham was pushing to hold off resuming fares until at least the end of the 2022/23 school year.

“We’re going to get there,” Cunningham told Arizona Luminaria. “I’m optimistic there is a way without putting the squeeze on folks. I’m super confident about that.”

Cunningham also said that an option would be to reach out to various companies and institutions, including the University of Arizona, the Air Force base, Raytheon, and asking them to offer a lump sum to allow their employees or students to ride for free.

He projected that a yearly pass would max out at $90, with significantly cheaper yearly rates — he mentioned as low as $5 a year for low-income riders — than previous fares.

During the fare-free transit discussion, Romero asked, “How do we make it equitable and accessible to all?”

“What keeps me up at night is a yearly commitment to pay for the $9.1 million,” she said.

Given fluctuating ridership, as well as the steep annual cost of collecting fares, it remains unclear that the necessary funds needed to run the public transit system are going to come from riders opening their wallets.

For Ward 3 council member Kevin Dahl, climate change is the reason to invest in the fare-free transit system, “so we can get more people out of their cars.”

He also offered a potential solution: a utility fee.

The commissioned study also mentions a utility fee as an option — tacking a fee on Tucsonans’ utility bills to fund public transportation — but there seems to have been no formal exploration of the idea. The city of Corvallis, Oregon, which has offered fare-free rides on its transit system since 2011, charges a monthly fee on residents’ gas bills to help fund the project.

Corvallis saw a 37.9% increase in ridership after going fare free when residents opted for a transit operations fee, about $3.44 monthly for single-family residential utility customers. That provided a stable source of local transit funding to match state and federal funds, freeing up property taxes previously dedicated to transit services for other public services.

What can Tucsonans do? They can keep making their views known to council members.

How to get involved

Belén Alvarez has been riding Tucson’s buses her whole life. In her 60s now, she is working part time as a home-health aide, and rides from her home in northwest Tucson to the downtown area and Menlo Park a couple times a week for work.

“I think free fares are great,” Belén said.

A bus driver parked at downtown Tucson’s Rondstadt Transit Center, who didn’t want to use his name as he wasn’t authorized to speak with the press, said free fares are “good and bad.”

The driver also shared the concerns of council members: “Who’s paying for it?” he asked.

Perhaps, one sign of the painful financial times that many families have endured in Tucson and across Arizona and the U.S. is the spike in the number of people who are homeless and seeking refuge in public parks and on public transit. In 2019, an annual homelessness count recorded 1,372 sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness, in 2022 it had increased to 1,759.

Belén says she sees people on Tucson buses who need help.

She said she knows people are struggling — with mental illness, addiction or homelessness — and doesn’t blame them but wonders how they can be supported beyond a fleeting ride on the bus.

The bus driver echoed Belén’s concern and sympathy. “I get it, people need a place to crash out or get out of the heat, but this ain’t the place for it.”

Homelessness advocates argue that any place that keeps people from dying on the streets is the right refuge. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 2018 that it was “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce policies that stop or criminalize people who are homeless from camping in public places when cities do not have enough shelter beds to house people who have no home.

Many people know that without a collaboration or sustainable funding like in the town of Corvallis, where fares have remained free for more than a decade, or in the city of Tempe, where neighborhood shuttles are free, Tucson’s experiment in zero-fares transit will end.

“I’m not against free fares, but I want them to be fair,” the bus driver said.

“Free fare transit is good for the community,” said Robles, the student leader advocating for UA leaders to step up and partner with the city to invest in a fare-free public transit system.

“It’s just a matter of how do we get there,” he said.

John Washington

John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...