Deadline looms for Tucson decision on fate of free public transportation

The free rides are almost over for Tucsonans using public transit unless the city can find about $9 million a year to keep them going.

Fare-free bus, van and tram rides, which began in 2020 as a way to limit contact between drivers and passengers during the pandemic, will end on December 31 without another infusion of public or private money.

Officials at the University of Arizona, where some student leaders are pushing for permanent fare-free transportation, have not yet said publicly whether the UA will contribute.

The City Council is expected to vote next month on the future of the program that was until recently funded by federal COVID-19 support grants that are now expiring.

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A staffing survey, reviewed by the council last month, looked at several U.S. communities with fare-free transit systems and found they had something in common that Tucson lacks: a funding source specifically earmarked for that purpose.

Some regions rely on sales or property taxes or a vehicle rental tax to offset income once covered by transit fares. Others receive financial contributions from universities or private employers.

In Tucson, 60% of Sun Link streetcar drivers and 20% of Sun Tran bus drivers are UA students, ward councilman Steve Kozachik said Oct. 5 during a study session. UA student leaders have publicly pleaded with the city council to keep the system free for users, he noted.

“We need you to knock on Bobby Robbins’ door,” Kozachik said of the student lobby, referring to UA president Robert Robbins.

UA spokeswoman Pam Scott said the school already contributes about $800,000 a year to the transportation system by subsidizing 50% of the cost of transportation passes for faculty, staff and students. The UA has been doing this for years and plans to continue the practice, she said in a Nov. 17 email interview.

Asked about the possibility of a larger contribution, Scott said, “I have nothing to add at this time.”

City officials said they also plan to seek funding from other entities such as Pima Community College and private employers.

About 5,600 Tucson residents who responded to a survey this year said 82% were in favor of keeping the transportation system tariff-free. But that feeling was not shared by the nearly 50 carriers who took part in a similar quiz.

About 83% of bus drivers, 75% of streetcar drivers and 89% of paratransit van drivers who responded said Tucson should start paying for rides again, the study said.

Drivers reported a surge in attacks against operators and passengers after free fares went into effect, rising from 21 incidents in 2019 to 64 in 2021. Many of the disputes arose when passengers refused to wear face masks on board, officials said.

Several cities with free transportation have adopted strict codes of conduct that would allow riders to be banned for repeat offenses and new rules to prevent unprotected people from driving around continuously to escape the elements.

Tucson transportation officials say they have already made improvements by adding additional security personnel to increase safety on board.

Ward 3 Councilman Kevin Dahl said free bus and streetcar rides will help the city meet its environmental goals by reducing emissions from private vehicles.

“Climate change is why I’m investing in a free transportation system so we can get more people out of their cars and onto public transportation,” he said.

Learn how Sun Tran, the public transportation provider in Tucson, is electrifying its bus fleet.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or [email protected]. On Twitter: @AZStarConsumer

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