Tucson Looks to Spend $10 Million For Fare-Free Public Transit Over Next Six Months

Tucson Looks to Spend $10 Million For Fare-Free Public Transit Over Next Six Months

By Corinne Murdock |

The city of Tucson is eyeing plans to subsidize bus fare for $10 million for the next six months, with the ultimate goal of making free public transit permanent. However, Tuesday’s council discussions indicated that “free” may eventually become additional cost burdens elsewhere for Tucson taxpayers. 

During Tuesday’s study session, the council proposed several ideas for offsetting the cost to the city to provide fare-free transit forever, after establishing funding partners. Mayor Regina Romero suggested establishing more parking garage fees. Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz said that the pandemic afforded a unique opportunity in establishing a “new normal” for transit. Santa Cruz said that long-term financing might have to include an additional property tax.

City staff reported that the entire bus system costs around $105-106 million, with $53 million coming from the city. That includes the Sun Tran, Sun Van, and Sun Link transit systems. Advertising revenue brings in about $1.7 million annually, intergovernmental agreements with regional partners including the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) makes up $19.2 million ($11.7 million from RTA plan), and federal grants total $20 million. 

The council reported that Raytheon, a major defense contractor, has signed on as a partner already. The city is attempting to bring on other partners, specifically naming University of Arizona (UArizona) and the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). City Manager Mike Ortega disclosed that the city hasn’t reached out to other school districts, and indicated that they wouldn’t. 

Romero shared that TUSD was interested in providing fare-free transit for its students, but that UArizona wasn’t. Romero said that she tried to sell the transit initiative by reminding UArizona President Robert Robbins that staff and faculty, in addition to students, used public transit; that it would look good as a climate change initiative; and that it would save Robbins from having to build more parking.

Romero also agreed that city employees should ride the bus for free. 

Due to federal pandemic relief funding, the city hasn’t charged for public transit in well over two years. Fares are scheduled to resume on Jan. 1. 

Ortega first recommended the city take on the expense. In a memo submitted to the council on Monday, Ortega cited its Built Environment Goals and Policies focus as the rationale for shifting to fare-free transit. 

Tuesday’s meeting was the fourth time that city staff brought this agenda item before the mayor and council. Romero asked for a continuance to allow city staff to further conversations with potential funding partners. Ortega indicated in Tuesday’s meeting that these partners were hesitant to advance further in this initiative without further data. 

Watch Tuesday’s council meeting here:

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