Rides of March: Tucson Council scratching, clawing to keep buses free

Public transit fares don’t seem to be likely to reappear on a Tucson city bus near you, at least not for the time being.

The City Council is not ready to accept City Manager Mike Ortega’s recommendation to start the process to reimpose fares on Sun Link streetcar and Sun Express transit service, and they are nowhere near prepared to start charging Sun Tran bus riders again.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a ride on Sun Tran buses or the Sun Link streetcar between Downtown and the university cost $1.60. Once COVID hit, Tucson used federal relief money to provide free service. That money ran out last year and the city has been providing transit out of its own cash reserves. That won’t work in the long term without costing anywhere from $10 million to $15 million each year.

At a meeting this week, the Council opted to come back on March 19 to discuss the issue further. They asked Ortega to run numbers on tourism taxes like a higher hotel bed surcharge and a higher rental car tax.

One dollar of bed tax would raise somewhere in the area of $4 million, Ortega told the Council, based on previous studies the city has done. He was a bit noncommittal that those figures still tracked. He had no idea how much an increased car rental tax could raise. 

By fiscal year 2026, the city will start running deficits that have to be made up one way or another.

When Councilmember Nikki Lee proposed starting the study, Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz threw down a protest.

“I don’t feel at all comfortable voting in favor of starting the (study) because that gives the impression that we are moving in the direction of wanting to charge fares again and I’m not there,” the West Side Democrat said.

Neither are any of their Council colleagues, who last year voted to keep transit fares free. Lee withdrew the recommendation and the Council told city bureaucrats to study the issue more during the next two weeks.

Ortega had recommended bringing back the fee on Sun Link, frequented by University of Arizona students, after campus administrators refused to promise some money to help keep the service free. 

The city had approached the UA, Tucson Unified School District and Pima Community College about pitching in. All were a hard “no,” with Pima arguing that it was not legally allowed to fund a service provided by another government.

Ortega described opposition to the “let’s-all-work-together” plan as an impenetrable obstacle. So if UA doesn’t want to pay, then their students can start forking over cash for Sun Link’s campus-area service connecting to Downtown.

Mayor Regina Romero kind of liked the idea, but ultimately understood it to be a bit petty and petulant.

“I wish I could say, y’know what, UA you don’t want to pay into it then we’re going to charge your students,” Romero said. “We’re going to charge your faculty and anyone headed over to the university should pay. It would be the easy approach but what good is that for the community.”

The birth of ‘Big Stupid’

It’s fascinating how the politics of this issue has changed.

Ridership had been dropping on Sun Tran for years prior to the pandemic, down from a high of 20 million per year in 2013 to 11 million in 2020. When free rides met reduced COVID-19 risks and a return to more in-person work, the number of people taking the bus began increasing back up to nearly 15 million riders in 2023.

Also, Sun Link ridership has more than doubled since streetcar fares were eliminated.

So that kind of changes the math. 

For years, providing Sun Tran any subsidy ran into fierce opposition from the community, and the Council saw their role as turning the transit system into a “user pays” model. Non-transit users shouldn’t have to pay for the service, the argument went.

“User pays” was all the rage for nearly 40 years, from the Reagan Revolution until the late 2010s, when progressives began to rage against costs of things like health care and tuition.

The current members of the City Council are part of that new breed and are sensitive to the new thinking.

It doesn’t hurt that the opposition has departed reality. I mean, someone arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay for someone else is at least coherent. That’s not the argument anymore.

Councilmember Paul Cunningham laid out the talking points put forth by the local Republican Party (where have you gone, J. Fife Symington?) that make no sense.

“One of the biggest that we have is this mischaracterization of our bus riders,” Cunningham said. “We got a whole bunch of people who are just trying to get where they are going and get to work. We have a bunch of people assuming that every single person on the bus is using it to shoplift or be indoors.”

Who uses the bus as a getaway car? Seriously. It’s a terrible way to escape justice. It’s hard enough to time a transfer from the Campbell bus to the Broadway bus let alone trying to synchronize the swiping of Cap’N Crunch with the exact moment the bus door opens in front of an Albertson’s.

Anyone doing that is too advanced for shoplifting. They’re knocking over casinos with George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

Seriously, does local talk radio compete over who can take the biggest leap into the stupid?

Reality is coming

So even if the political opposition’s senses have left them, fiscal reality may do the work for any opponents to free transit.

The city is running headlong toward red ink as coronavirus money runs out and state shared revenues evaporate with the hard reality of Arizona’s flat tax.

Ortega built an $11 million transit subsidy into the early drafts of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2025. So the Sun Tran bus service looks kind of OK until then. However, the Council will face a budget shock the next year when a bunch of cuts will be required if changes aren’t made.

I’ve suggested the Regional Transportation Authority may be an option. It still could be, depending on a number of factors. However, the next 20-year round of sales taxes to pay won’t likely be approved until next year and wouldn’t kick in until April 2026, 10 months into the fiscal year with the shortfall.

Why not return to partial fares at first?

Look, Sun Tran always cost money. I remember paying 60 cents in college. The bus was pretty widely used. Even charging a third of the previous price closes a good part of the gap. 

The City Council must find a solution before then.

It’s clear they want to extend free transit. It’s not clear they can make it work financially. They’re not done trying to find a way.