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Is Tucson’s free transit model about to end?

Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega is recommending that the city resume charging for rides on streetcars and some buses.

in memo In preparation for a discussion on free fares at the Mayor and City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 5, Ortega said, “I urge the Mayor and City Council to begin the process of resuming fare collection for Sun Link and Sun Express services. It recommended that the government instruct the

This recommendation covers streetcar and express service routes and does not cover all bus routes in Tucson.

The city of Tucson has not charged passengers for public transportation since March 2020. Since then, the city has conducted research, sought partners for alternative funding methods, and conducted public outreach on whether and how fares should remain free.

As previously reported by Arizona Luminaria, in July 2022, San Tran, the private operator of Tucson's public transit system, held a series of meetings to hear from riders and the public. A survey of around 2,500 local residents at the time found that 80% supported continued fare-free travel.

Miranda Schubert is a member of the Transit for All Coalition and founder of Tucson for Everyone, a local housing and transportation advocacy group. “This recommendation is [to reinstate fares] It doesn't address the fundamental problem. We must find long-term, sustainable ways to fund a public transportation system that meets Tucson's needs,” Schubert said.

“The Mayor and City Council promised last May that they would find a way to fund permanent free transit, and breaking that promise now will cause confusion and mistrust,” she said.

Last spring, the city established a public task force to consider ways to keep fares free. On May 9th, the city council also unanimously passed a resolution to “declare our intention to make transportation free of charge.''

At the same meeting, the City Council agreed to a provision that would continue free fares until the Mayor and City Council vote in favor of reinstating the fares.

On February 29, in response to Ortega's memo, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero told Arizona Luminaria, “My preference is to continue to make fares free, but since our academic partners have chosen not to donate, We need to consider all options.”

Romero was referring to years of discussions with the University of Arizona, Pima Community College and Tucson Unified School District. Students at all of these universities regularly use and benefit from free transportation. The City of Tucson is working to have these agencies cover the costs of providing free fares.

Participants at an event hosted by The Transit for All Coalition write letters, make signs and talk about continuing free transit on March 29, 2023 in Tucson, Arizona. credit: Michael McKison

“About 70 percent of the streetcar riders are University of Arizona faculty and students,” City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who represents District 6 near UA, told Arizona Luminaria. He said the City Council asked the university for a donation to keep the fare free, but the university refused.

Kozachik said that when they visited University of Arizona President Robert Robbins, he asked to see numbers about UA's high ridership among faculty and students. “We showed them the numbers, but he still didn't want to pay,” he said.

The University of Arizona is also facing budget shortfalls and layoffs due to the financial crisis.

free rider

Ortega's memo said the task force was called the “Transportation Stakeholder Group” and included transit users, transit drivers and operators, and community members.

According to the memo, the stakeholder group met five times between September and December last year to “discuss transportation funding options and draft recommendations to address short-, medium-, and long-term financial strategies.” That's what it means.Summaries of those meetings are available here.

according to Final report completed among transportation stakeholders At its November meeting, the group presented four recommendations to keep free fares in place.

Recommendations include:

  • “Establish sustainable funding for public transit services primarily through a combination of sales taxes, property taxes, and service access agreements with public and private partners who directly benefit from public transit services.” These partners include: It includes four educational institutions.
  • “Seeks voter approval of sales tax increase to improve transportation service levels.”
  • Promote legislation that would allow state revenues to be used to support local public transportation services.
  • Recognizes “the need for a dedicated and stable revenue source for transportation operations” and develops “a potential plan for the Mayor and Council to establish an urban public transportation system.”

Estimating impact

Ortega's memo also stated that “the impact of reinstating transit fares on transit ridership is unknown.”

The memo says the revenue range from reinstating the different fare models is $10 million to $15 million. The estimated deficit, or funding shortfall, for public transit next year is in a similar range, about $10 million to $15 million.

Research shows that cities that implement fare-free policies boost local GDP. According to a study by the Center for Economic Information at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, making fares free Increase regional GDP from $13 million to $17.9 million.

Ortega's report said the cost to re-implement fares in Tucson would be about $420,000.

“We have no desire to reinstate fares, but we need the support of the community and the Legislature to make that happen,” 1st District Councilman Lane Santa Cruz told Arizona Luminaria.

“We also need financial investment from educational institutions whose students and employees rely on public transportation,” Santacruz added. “Strams are also an economic boost for local businesses, and we need their support and advocacy to ensure fares remain free.”
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue at noon March 5 in a study session and at its regular meeting at City Hall, 255 W. Alameda St., at 5:30 p.m. Meeting and study session agendas are available online. here. Both meetings will be open to the public.

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