tucson bus
Tucson Unveils New $140 Million Public Transit On Existing Route

October 31, 2023

By Corinne Murdock |

The city of Tucson unveiled plans for a new $140 million public transit system, with the first proposed route along an existing one covered by Sun Tran, the fare-free transit system in place. 

In a press release on Monday, the city called for residents’ feedback on the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The BRT would cover an existing route by Sun Tran: the 19 – Stone South Route. Both cover the area from the Tohono T’adai Transit Center/Tucson Mall to the downtown Ronstadt Transit Center.

The two public transits have few differences. BRT fare may or may not be free, depending on the continued existence of the no-fare policy applying to Sun Tran. Additionally, the BRT would carry triple the amount of passengers at a quicker pace: anywhere from 100 to 150 persons with a run time of every 10 minutes. Comparatively, Sun Tran buses carry up to 40 passengers with a run time of every 15 to 30 minutes. 

On a website dedicated to the new system, the city said that current transit systems are subject to delays and congestion because they operate in local traffic. BRT would have dedicated travel lanes and transit signal priority.

The new BRT system, spanning five miles, is part of a greater 15-mile transit corridor project: the Tucson Rapid Transit. That corridor would consist of a northern segment spanning from the Tohono T’adai Transit Center/Tucson Mall to the Ronstadt Transit Center/downtown Tucson, and then a southern segment spanning from the downtown stop to the Tucson International Airport. 

The southern segment would come at another projected cost of $140 million. In total, the Tucson Rapid Transit would cost around $280 million. The city is hoping the federal government will slash that cost in half. 

The Federal Transit Administration has approved the city’s proposed northern segment for its Small Starts Capital Investment Grant program, but has yet to award funds. The city applied for coverage of 50 percent of project costs. The remainder of the projected costs would ultimately be taxpayers’ burden, obtained through RTA Next.

The Sun Tran remains free to all riders through the end of this year, and for the foreseeable future.

Last year, city officials decided to continue to waive transit fees from its initial, pandemic-prompted suspension as part of a “new normal” for transit. The total cost of the bus system was estimated at a little over $100 million at the time, with about $53 million coming from the city. Advertising revenue brought in just shy of $2 million annually, with intergovernmental agreements and federal grants accounting for about another $40 million. 

The remaining $11 million posed a problem for the city, one that remained unsolved when the council again extended free fare in May.

Ridership has increased in diversity since the pandemic and change in presidents. The border crisis resulted in a consistent flood of noncitizens who have made use of the city’s free transit system. The city allocated about $550,000 from April 1 to Dec. 31 to bus illegal immigrants from between shelter sites and the Tucson International Airport. 

The city has also received significant federal investments in its Sun Tran system.

Earlier this year, the city received $21.5 million from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration to decarbonize the Sun Tran system by replacing the remaining diesel bus fleet with 39 compressed natural gas buses. 

The city is scheduled to hold three meetings on the first proposed BRT: two in-person meetings on Nov. 14 and 16, and a virtual meeting on Nov. 15.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

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