Mayor Regina Romero has sent three letters — to the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, and K-12 public school officials — urging the entities that rely heavily on Tucson public transit to step up in the quest to keep the services fare-free.

Romero said at an April 4 council study session that she sent the letters to address the “possibility of partnership and what the service of free transit provides to their students, faculty and staff.” 

The revenue gap from operating fare-free for transit services in fiscal year 2023 is about $9.1 million dollars, according to a memo from Timothy Thomure, deputy city manager. 

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 economic relief to cities — to extend its fare-free initiative for Sun Tran, Sun Link and Sun Van. 

Tucson is seeking to join national transit leaders like Kansas City and Corvallis, Oregon that have adopted fareless systems and markedly increased ridership as a result. Tucson is the only city in Arizona that has extended its fare-free transit system past the initial pandemic response.

To make up that $9.1 million gap, the city is looking at a number of local funding options. The council discussed those options, as outlined in the memo with transit data.

Options for local funding include: 

  • Public/private partnerships
  • More advertising on buses
  • Utility fee
  • Vehicle-usage levy
  • Increased parking fees
  • Hotel/motel surcharges

For Sun Tran, total estimated ridership in 2022 was about 13 million. For Sun Link in the same year, total estimated ridership was 1.3 million.

A recent study analyzed ridership trends and pre-pandemic revenue contributions from the three school systems Tucson wants more buy-in from, which the city had prior to moving to a fareless system to address the global pandemic.

The SunLink streetcar takes a packed load down University Avenue toward Fourth Avenue on Saturday, April April 1, 2023.

The transit study noted in the April 4 memo estimates that for the 2022-2023 school year University of Arizona students will ride city buses 350,037 times.

Faculty and staff will take an estimated 13,230 bus rides over the same period. UA students, faculty and staff combined will take an estimated 1.4 million rides on Sun Link, the Tucson streetcar.

“Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and the establishment of fare-free transit, the University of Arizona participated in revenue generation for the transit system through the U Pass program by paying 50% of student and staff transit pass costs,” according to the memo.

For fiscal year 2019, that amounted to $813,824 dollars, which the university paid directly to Sun Tran and included both the university portion and the student-employee contribution.

Pima Community College students will take about 32,371 rides on Tucson public transit. Faculty and staff will take an estimated 2,849 rides. Prior to the pandemic, PCC also participated in revenue generation through the purchase of bus passes, which amounted to $28,578 for fiscal year 2019.

Students at Tucson-area public K–12 schools will take an estimated 486,603 rides on Sun Tran. The Tucson Unified School District accounts for the bulk of those rides, with 406,879 rides. Also prior to the pandemic, local public school districts participated in revenue generation for the transit system through the purchase of bus passes for students, contributing $893,445 for fiscal year 2019.

The contributions from the three stakeholders in 2019 amounted to nearly $2 million to support Tucson public transit.

Students hold red signs that read: "mobility justice is why I ride," "accessibility is why I ride," and "supporting local businesses is why I ride."
College students hold protest signs at the Tucson City Council meeting on September 27, 2022. Credit: Becky Pallack

Students at the University of Arizona have been pushing President Robert Robbins to commit to helping keep public transit fareless and contribute to the $9.1 million gap. 

Last September, Robbins rode the streetcar with students and said that he would work to “make that happen.”

No final decisions were made at the council’s study session, with Romero noting that it was “very premature to discuss how to fund” ongoing free fares. She repeatedly called for bringing those stakeholders to the table to engage in ongoing discussions. 

While they debated how to fund the transit system, the general consensus was that the council wants to find a way to maintain fareless ridership. 

“Investing in free-fare transit reaps benefits,” Romero said. “More vibrant city, improved air quality, decreased congestion, economic development in terms of tourism, students and the elderly can get around with no expense.” But, the mayor reiterated, “We need a longer term approach.”

Tucson is considering community stakeholders who are advocating for transit as a public resource, which more cities with urban cores are studying in an effort to address car usage, pollution and more equitable access to sprawling regions. The movement equates schools, parks, libraries, and other basic municipal public services to public transportation as an essential part of any local community.

Neither Romero, the council, nor a recently formed transportation coalition seem to want to end free public transit in Tucson.

Mary DeCamp, a longtime Tucson resident, has long been following the free fares discussion, and was present at the council study session. Mary recently moved to 25th Street and frequently takes the bus up and down Fourth and Sixth avenues “with incredible ease.” She says that she didn’t take the bus nearly as often before it was free. “The convenience of it going by is so inviting,” she says. 

Riders, businesses, and now city government are hoping to maintain that inviting ease.

“I continue to push and advocate that our public transportation be considered a public good the way that our parks and libraries and public safety are for our community,” council member Lane Santa Cruz said at the April 4 meeting. 

Romero echoed the stance: “At the end of the day this is about how people move in this city. We have to think of our transit system as a resource instead of something that takes away from our budget. Having availability of transit is a service we’re providing to our community.”

“I’m for this,” said council member Kevin Dahl. “It’s climate resiliency, it’s economic justice.”

As a final decision is punted, members of the Transit for All Coalition gathered outside city hall during the study session, calling for urgency. As the session wrapped up, about 20 or so members were holding signs and practicing their slogans.

After testing out a few, they decided on something simple. “Keep fares free,” one woman began, and it quickly caught on and became a chant.

“I saw the need during the pandemic,” said Sami Hamed. He’s legally blind and relies on public transportation to get around the city. 

Miranda Schubert, another member of the coalition, says, “This issue touches on so many things that are important to what Tucson is going to be like in the future.”

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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...