TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Because of the pandemic, the Tucson City Council voted in March to make riding the transit system, buses, streetcar and sunvan, free.
The city received $44.3 million from the federal transit authority to subsidize the system during the pandemic. Now, that money is gone so the city has to decide whether to begin charging fares once again on September 28th.
But the council unanimously rejected the notion of charging fares again in a pandemic.
It voted to continue with the free fares through the end of the year.
But since federal money has run out, the city will need to pay for the transit service through the general fund. It’s estimated to be several million dollars.
“I suggest sharpening our pencils and have some other potential partners fund this, find a way to continue these free rides to the end of the calendar year” said Ward 6 City Council member Steve Kozachik.
He suggests the city could then take a second look at it.
In the meantime, Tucson City Mayor Regina Romero suggested the city rethink how to provide transit.
“We should look at models that other cities in the United States have been moving towards,” she said. “Which is universal free ridership for the benefit of the community.”
She said the council should use the next three months to try to find a way to make transit free.
Several council members agreed with her including Vice Mayor Paul Cunningham who said “I think this is an opportunity for us to allow that conversation for an up or down vote.”
The council felt it was too early to start charging riders again since subsidies for rent, food and energy are still very popular getting thousands of applications.
The eviction moratorium ends in a few weeks which is another financial hit for many essential workers.
“These services could become even more valuable to the public in the next several weeks,” Kozachik said.
The city said it has put plexiglass barriers in the buses to protect the drivers, have pressed others into service to clean every bus every night and since it has a 22 percent absentee rate, has had to pay a lot of overtime for bus drivers.
That’s where much of the $44 million in federal transit money went over the past seven month.
Ridership has plummeted by 24 percent on SunTran buses and 63 percent on the streetcar although that has increased some since the university students have returned.
The city and University of Arizona are already in talks to implement a universal, free ride program for students.