Gina Renfroe is a self-proclaimed “busser.” She knows some drivers well, and likes to catch up on life while using public transit to get around her hometown.

Gina holds a red marker in her hand, chuckling as she cracks jokes and draws posters with people advocating for permanently adopting a fare-free mass transit system in Tucson.

“Just keep the buses free. It’s helpful for people like me,” she says. One of Gina’s friends points out that her motto rhymes. They get a kick out of the lighter moment amid a grassroots community movement that is critical for families struggling with inflation, skyrocketing housing costs, growing populations of people experiencing homelessness and an enduring COVID-19 healthcare crisis. 

Gina uses a power wheelchair for mobility and is living on a fixed income. She takes the bus to go shopping, to her doctor’s appointments, and for everything that she can’t access without a car.

Gina Renfroe works on a sign advocating for the continuation of free transit at an event organized by The Transit for All Coalition in Tucson, Ariz. on March 29, 2023. Renfroe, a wheelchair user, said she doesn’t drive and the bus is the only way she can get around. She is on a fixed income and before the free transit she sometimes couldn’t afford the monthly bus pass. Credit: Michael McKisson

It’s the last Wednesday in March and Gina is among the group of about 20 people at “The Party for Free Transit.” The event is organized by the Transit for All Coalition at the Global Justice Center near South Fourth Avenue and 26th Street.

The coalition is made up of several community organizations invested in public transportation. Transit riders and volunteer allies are writing letters and emails to the mayor and council in support of keeping public transportation free for all Tucsonans.

Located just south of downtown, the Global Justice Center is a stout, tan building settled across the street from a community soup kitchen. In the hallway entrance is a table holding hand sanitizer, COVID-19 tests and N95 masks. 

In the main room, the walls are adorned with posters — many of which are written in English and Spanish — about social justice topics, from environmentalism and border issues to Indigenous affairs and equality. A bookshelf is stacked with records and resource binders, including ones labeled “LGBT” and “domestic violence,” for anyone who wants to learn more or who needs help.

Just past the snack table, people are making signs.

“Fund public transit. Mobility is a human right.”

“Fare free transit for all”

“Keep buses free”

“Fare free is mobility justice”

Vanessa Gallego of FUGA Tucson finishes a sign advocating for the continuation of free transit at an event organized by The Transit for All Coalition in Tucson, Ariz. on March 29, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

In March 2020, Tucson temporarily suspended fares as part of its COVID-19 response to a local crisis in a global pandemic. The council has tapped federal transit funds — aimed at providing pandemic relief to cities — to extend its fare-free initiative for Sun Tran, Sun Link and Sun Van.

Now, after months of community outreach, including public meetings and surveys, officials are set to discuss the issue at a 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 4 study session, which will precede an upcoming final vote. The public can attend the meeting or watch it on livestream video.

Tucson is the only city in Arizona that has extended its fare-free transit system past the initial pandemic response. The move is part of a growing innovation approach to consider transit a public service akin to public schools, libraries and parks and to seek dedicated funding to support the systems.

Kansas City drew national attention when the Midwest community joined the zero-fares transit movement three years ago.

Critics argue that without fares, funding would be siphoned from other areas of Tucson’s budget, potentially diminishing support for other critical services the city funds with local, state and federal funds.

Cities that have opted for a dedicated transit operations fee have seen a jump in ridership – a long-sought goal for Tucson transportation planners. Corvallis, Oregon saw a  37.9% increase in ridership in the first year after going fareless in 2011.

The community supported 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. Twelve years later, that fee is now $4.72 per single family residential utility account.

Kyle Snowden is a volunteer at Tucson for Everyone, an organization that advocates for affordable housing. 

“Once you start advocating for housing, you realize very quickly how housing and transit are sort of two sides of the same coin,” he says.

With regard to people experiencing homelessness or living on a low income, Kyle compares transit fares to “a tax on the poor.”

Kyle Snowden writes a letter in support of free transit fares at an event organized by The Transit for All Coalition in Tucson, Ariz. on March 29, 2023. Snowden said he moved to Phoenix for a job, but returned to Tucson because he says it is a more connected and walkable city. Credit: Michael McKisson

Suzanne Schafer calls herself a “longtime transit advocate” in the community and works with Zero Fares Tucson.

“People who don’t drive cars are basically oppressed in our transportation system because it’s so set up to favor the use of private automobiles,” Suzanne says. “And I don’t want people in my community, myself included, to have to own a car or use a car to really be able to participate fully in the economic and social life of the community.”

Advocates say that taking the bus, and having free access to it, can spark economic stimulation for riders who may otherwise save fare money for critical needs like doctor’s appointments. Some of Gina’s regular shopping destinations on the bus include Hobby Lobby, Savers, dollar stores and DD’s. 

Despite the coalition’s advocacy for continuing fare-free public transit, the council has made clear the greatest challenge lies in the question of funding.

Steve Kozachik is the vice mayor and council member representing Ward 6. Kozachik told Arizona Luminaria that he would like some major Tucson players – such as Raytheon, the Metro Chamber, Pima College and the University of Arizona – to take responsibility for funding the public transit system.

“Roughly 70% of the ridership on the streetcar are students,” he says. “Why wouldn’t the university be stepping up and helping to fund like 70% of the cost of the operating of something that their students are directly benefiting from?”

There hasn’t been much luck convincing these players, and Kozachik is disappointed in their unwillingness to fund something that helps their employees and the community as a whole. UA students also have urged college President Robert Robbins to lead the conversation on a funding partnership.

Miranda Shubert of Tucson For Everyone creates a sign advocating for the continuation of free transit at an event organized by The Transit for All Coalition in Tucson, Ariz. on March 29, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

The idea of the city itself paying is a common sentiment. Kozachik wants the public to know that if this happens, it could come from the general fund that affects other resources such as parks and roads. He also wants support from the RTA, which is ending their previous funding of the streetcar that amounted to approximately $700,000.

Suzanne with Zero Fares Tucson does not want any “half measures” such as free rides for those living in poverty. She wants to eliminate all fares for everyone to make way for what she calls obstruction-free ridership.

“The other thing we need to keep in mind is that removing the fares actually does improve the transit system,” Suzanne says. “It in itself is a service improvement.” 

She says fareless systems improve accessibility without needing to take any other actions.

Vanessa Gallegos is the program manager for Families United Gaining Accessibility, or FUGA. She organizes monthly community bike rides.

“We use the bicycle as a tool to engage communities around issues of transportation and mobility,” she says.

Vanessa points out that people living on a fixed income might have had their government assistance decreased during the pandemic. In the age of inflation, she says they might be forced to choose between food or other lifesaving needs and a bus fare.

“I think that that barrier … to some it might mean like, ‘Oh, you know, I can’t make my doctor appointment today,’” Vanessa says. “And I think it’s those populations that are the most affected.”

Gina says she would be “lost” without Tucson’s bus system.

“I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere anymore and that would be sad,” she says.

Prior to the fareless transit rides, Gina sometimes couldn’t afford the monthly bus pass. 

As the party for fare-free transit wraps up, participants begin trickling out. Everyone here knows the council will soon make a decision that could add another bill to their already squeezed-tight personal budget.

Allen Benz wears a yellow Bus Riders Union t-shirt at an event advocating for the continuation of free transit organized by the The Transit for All Coalition in Tucson, Ariz. on March 29, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Allen Benz is talking transit with another Tucsonan. Allen has been riding the bus for years. He’s wearing his signature red beret, his gray hair pressed tight against his neck collared by a yellow Tucson Bus Riders Union T-shirt. The coalition fell dormant but has picked up steam again since the fare-free discussions.

The back of Allen’s T-shirt shares a message in English and Spanish coined by Enrique Peñalosa, a former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. Peñalosa rallied for community equity movements and efforts to build more sustainable cities:

“An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.”

“Una ciudad avanzada no es en la que los pobres pueden moverse en carro, sino una en la que incluso los ricos utilizan el transporte público”.

Emma Brocato

Emma Brocato is a freelance writer in Tucson. Her work focuses on natural resources and the environment.