Tucson Votes To Make Public Transit Free Indefinitely

Tucson Votes To Make Public Transit Free Indefinitely

By Corinne Murdock |

Tucson taxpayers are likely to be on the hook for the costs of public transit indefinitely.

The city council voted last Tuesday to make public transit free for good, according to Councilman Steve Kozachik, after three years of not charging for transportation services.

Kozachik clarified to the University of Arizona (UArizona) student newspaper that the council’s actions last week meant that they wouldn’t reinstate transit fares until the council took an affirmative vote to do so. 

The council voted to extend free public transit through this December during last Tuesday’s study session at a cost of $4.6 million. According to Kozachik, this motion was within the context of the council’s true intention to keep public transit free indefinitely. 

The council also moved to establish a task force of stakeholders to determine how to keep public transit free. Mayor Regina Romero expressed concern that the council was essentially kicking the can down the road.

“To be honest, we’re moving the item every six months, and so I think we really need to figure out what is the long-term solution,” said Romero. “If we don’t have long-term funding options, then we need to start talking about what’s a fair fare. We just need to make sure that we do have the possible stakeholders and investors in the system.”

Councilman Steve Kozachik cautioned that this strategy of holding out to inspire funding from stakeholders was likely to backfire. He added that it was “highly improbable” the council would actually move to reinstate fares after December.

“I don’t agree that us treading water on the decision about fares is necessary to get the other stakeholders to the table. I don’t agree with that as a negotiating strategy,” said Kozachik. 

Councilman Paul Cunningham raised the concern that the task force may not actually accomplish its appointed task of sourcing adequate funding or structuring the reinstatement of fares, pointing back to a three-year trend over the COVID-19 pandemic of alleged complacency and falling behind on goals due to virtual meetings.

“As much as I wish I was Obi-Wan Kenobi who could, like, use the Force to see what’s going to unfold, I can’t,” said Cunningham.

The council opted to maintain their position of free public transit, despite not having funding secured beyond December. Current funding sources for the remainder of the year, totaling $4.1 million — a $486,000 deficit, which Tucson will cover through the public Investment Plan funds — come from hotel and motel taxes, the Tucson Medical Center partnership, SunTran efficiency expense reductions, and a Visit Tucson funding formula adjustment.

UArizona also gave about $780,000 gleaned from student fees to fund the public transit. However, the estimated annual cost of public transit reaches around $11 million.

Some council members also mentioned that they’re attempting to tap Raytheon for long-term funding.

Prior to this year, federal COVID-19 relief funds covered the transit costs. Fares were scheduled to resume on January 1 of this year, but the city opted to source funds to cover the cost. 

Back in December, the council considered additional parking garage fees or property taxes to cover the transit costs.

Tucson isn’t the first city to attempt totally free transit in the state, let alone in the country. Phoenix’s Valley Metro offers free busing for its neighborhood circulators, and the first year of its streetcar services is free. The city also subsidized a limited number of free public transit passes in 2021 using $1 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

There are dozens of other cities around the country, as well as university campuses, that offer free public transit. 

As AZ Free News reported just prior to the Tucson City Council’s most recent decision, community members have criticized the three-year-long trial run of free public transit as more of a burden than a help. Locals have complained to several media outlets that the free transit enables criminal behavior and public nuisances. 

Unionized bus drivers have also complained, claiming that free transit has lowered the quality of passengers and required them to become the “transit police.” 

Watch the Tucson City Council study session here:

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