City debates how to raise $11 million to pay for free transit

City debates how to raise $11 million to pay for free transit
Published: May. 9, 2023 at 11:36 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - It seems to be unanimous that the Tucson City Council would like to make all transit in Tucson free going forward. Transit was free in Tucson during the Covid-19 pandemic but it was paid for by federal relief funds.

Now, the city will need to pay for it out of pocket to the tune of $11 million. Where that money will come from is the question.

“We’ve done it in six month increments now three consecutive times,” said Ward 6 City Council member Steve Kozachik.

He believes that’s just stringing along the bus riders and streetcar riders who are waiting for a decision. Will it be free or will, at sometime in the near future, passengers have to pony up to ride?

“I’m of a mind to say let’s pull the band aid off and let’s do it as a demonstration of our commitment to this,” he said.

The council has committed to free transit, one of the few communities in the country to do so, but one of the roadblocks is how to pay for it.

The city has found $2 million in new hotel and motel taxes, $790,000 from Tucson Medical Center and another $600,000 from Visit Tucson. That and some efficiencies give the city enough to pay for another six months, which is the recommendation from the Tucson city manager.

But Kozachik wants others like the University of Arizona and the Tucson Unified School District, who have a preponderance of the ridership, to put up some cash.

“We’ve put some money on the table, you guys put some money on the table, let’s do this together instead of a kind of combative position,” Kozachik said. “Let’s do it as a partner.”

Money is not the only issue. Security is an issue as well. During the hot summer months, some people ride the bus from dawn to dusk as a way to beat the heat and that has the bus drivers’ union concerned.

“It’s more about driver safety, passenger safety and public safety is what we’re concerned with,” said Teamsters Union 104 Business Manager Kevin Hampton. “And the fares don’t have anything to do with that.”

Still free fares can lead to issues which may be weeded out when customers have to pay up such as all day riders.

The city has already implemented a series of security measures along the routes which have the most security issues to allay drivers fears but the teamsters say, that’s likely not going to solve the problem.

“We don’t want our drivers to become the transit police,” Hampton said. “We’re more interested in finding long term solutions to combat the reasons why people want to ride the bus all day.”