Tucson’s public transit system will remain free to ride, the city council decided on Tuesday, but they’re going to ask a new task force to figure out how to pay for free rides and future system improvements.

The system was first made free in the spring of 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to limit contact between riders and drivers. And since then, city officials have revisited the issue about every six months.

That repeating discussion clearly irked some members of the council.

“Let’s rip the Band-Aid off and declare today we’re going fare-free,” council member Steve Kozachik proposed in the city council study session.

“We keep having the same conversation and I think we all know where we want to go,” he said. 

It’s “highly unlikely, highly improbable” the council would decide to resume charging fares for rides, Kozachick said. “What we more likely know is that we’re going to be at zero fares. Let’s just call it.”

The resulting unanimous vote was to “declare our intention to go fare-free transit.”

The vote also created a new stakeholder group that will include members of existing task forces, plus transit users, drivers, community members, potential funders and other stakeholders who will look for longer-term solutions to funding the existing system and also making future service improvements and expansions.

Community supporters of keeping Tucson’s public transportation free met outside the Tucson City Council study session Tuesday, May 9. Leigh Moyer, top left with green sign, says free buses make life “easier for people who don’t have the privilege I do…” Credit: Becky Pallack

Outside the city council meeting, a group gathered with signs supporting fare-free transit.

Rally-goer Leigh Moyer, a school district employee in Tucson, grew up riding the bus with her “anti-car” dad. Through high school she used the bus to get to school, go to bookstores and explore Tucson. Buses meant mobility and independence and connection her to her city, she said.

Now that she doesn’t need to use the bus as much, she still supports transit, she said.

“There are so many people that I work with on a regular basis, from students to refugees to low-income people who all benefit massively from taking one stressor out of their life,” Moyer said. “That’s where I would like my tax dollars to go. Even if I never rode the bus again, it would be worth it to me to make it easier for people who don’t have the privilege I do to have those accesses.”

How to pay for the transit system — buses, streetcars and vans — beyond this summer might still require Band-Aids.

Tucson is one of a few cities nationwide making public transit a free public service, like parks and libraries. In Arizona, Sierra Vista is piloting free-to-ride transit services.

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.

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tucson has had access to additional resources to help pay for the system, including a $47 million Federal Transit Administration grant that was part of the federal government’s pandemic relief to cities.

In 2019, before the pandemic, Tucson’s transit system cost $63 million and fares paid for about $12 million, or 19%, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.

In 2020, the system cost $65 million and fares paid for about $9 million, or 13%, when ridership dropped and the city stopped collecting fares in the pandemic.

So the size of the current annual funding shortfall is about $9 million.

City Manager Mike Ortega’s recommended budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2023, includes a patchwork solution to cover about half of that amount.

That also buys more time for city leaders to continue to look for other funding sources, Ortega said. He and city council members hope those sources include annual contributions from the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, local school districts and other major employers who are big users of the transit system.

The patchwork solution includes:

  • Reallocating $2 million in revenue generated by a hotel surcharge
  • Saving $614,000 by negotiating a new contract with Visit Tucson, the area visitors bureau
  • Accepting a $790,000 grant from Tucson Medical Center that uses state dollars
  • Reallocating $486,000 from a pot of money that was intended to be used as a one-time matching fund to apply for federal grants related to transit
  • And cutting costs by about $710,000 by eliminating 13 mechanic jobs at Sun Tran

Ortega said he worked with the Teamsters union on the job cuts. The bus system doesn’t need as many mechanics as it once did because the system is more efficient and uses fewer buses, he said.

Kozachik said the mix of new money and cuts shows potential funding partners the city has found half of the needed money and could encourage partners to “ante up” and match the amount. 

Members of the public can participate in city budget hearings on May 23 and June 6. Meeting details and agendas will be posted here.

The new task force will be charged with bringing a report and recommendations back to the city council in November.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Tucson was the only fare-free transit system in Arizona. It has been updated to include a pilot program in Sierra Vista.

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