Tucson looking for ways to keep its transit fares free

Published: Apr. 3, 2023 at 10:25 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - When the pandemic hit in 2020, Tucson made all of its transit services free of charge. Even so, ridership dropped dramatically.

Now, three years later, the city wants to make free transit a permanent thing. Ridership has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.

But there’s a problem, the city, which already subsidizes its transit services to the tune of $58 million a year, needs another $9 million to make it free for all.

Much of the free transit over the past three years has been funded with Covid money from the Federal Transportation Department. That money has run dry.

When you click on the Suntran website, the first thing that hits you is “all fares are currently free”, currently being the operative word here. The city would like to keep it that way but is struggling to find the money to do so.

“Conversations are going on with all the major institutions and major employers in the area,” said Ward 6 city council member Steve Kozachik. “There has been a minimal level of receptivity.” He added, “I’m quite disappointed.”

The city has been asking its biggest users like the University of Arizona, Pima Community College and local businesses for help but has not been successful.

“I think we owe it to our riders to try to come up with something,” Kozachik said. “I’m hopeful those who are benefiting from the fare structure the way it is right now will get their checkbook out and help.”

But if that help doesn’t come, the city will discuss up to eight other options to keep it free, including a new tax, which likely would be a non-starter since the city has already asked voters for a tax increase for roads and another for parks that were easily approved. Another ask may lead to an empty well.

“I think if we’re looking at anything it might be something such as a tax on rental cars, a bed tax,” he said. “People who come into town, winter visitors, snowbirds let the help pay for the system.”

Other alternatives which may be discussed include an increase in parking fees, a utility fee or a vehicle tax, none of which has a great deal of council support.

“Personally, as a transit advocate and activist, I don’t want to go back to where it was for about ten years where we spent half our energy talking about fares,” said Suzzane Schafer, a member of the transit task force and Zero Fares Tucson. “What’s the fare? Is it fair? What’s the way to do it? how we going to do it? How we going to do it? How we gonna make more? How are we going to make it fair and equitable and dependable and on and on and on.”

The council will discuss its options at its regular meeting study session on Tuesday, April 4 at 2:00 p.m.