Zero-fare bus bill kicked down the road

There is widespread support among Albuquerque city leaders to make ABQ Ride bus service free for all passengers.

The city even has money set aside to cover any related revenue losses.

But despite the collective will and resources, the City Council last week once again postponed a vote on legislation that would formalize the zero-fare pilot program. It was the third straight meeting the council failed to take action on the bill.

At issue is whether the city has an adequate security program in place to handle potential problems that come with opening the buses to any and all.

Councilors Pat Davis and Lan Sena — who co-sponsored the bill with Klarissa Peña and Isaac Benton — said they felt comfortable moving forward. Davis said making the system free would eliminate fare disputes, which is among the more common sources of conflict, and that the city’s system doesn’t have as many problems as some might think. He said city data shows 135 total transit incidents from January through June, but only 32 were on the buses themselves. Most were at stops.

Sena, meanwhile, said eliminating fares should also increase ridership, which can have its own benefits.

“More people on buses also mitigates a lot of the security concerns,” she said.

But Benton, who noted that he strongly backs a zero-fare model, said he did not think the program was “ready for prime time” because he was not confident the city had an adequately detailed security plan. He said that he regularly uses the city’s public transportation and that security concerns are a fact of life.

“I would still get on a (city) bus myself today if I needed to go somewhere and that was my option, but it’s pretty rough out there,” Benton said, adding that he speaks from experience.

“I’m an old kid that grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, riding the bus for 5 cents — you want see some rough characters … then you can see them down there.

“But we have a challenge here, and I really want us to succeed, and I really want the zero fares to succeed, (but) I don’t think we’re ready to see it succeed (given) the questions that we have today.”

Councilor Trudy Jones said she also had reservations about launching the program, noting that if problems arise, they could scare away new riders the city should be trying to lure, including people seeking an alternative to driving to work every day.

“Crime and uncomfortable situations on the bus will stop the people who use this for true transit,” Jones said.

Albuquerque Municipal Development Director Pat Montoya — whose department oversees security — said there are 20 security officer positions specifically budgeted for the transit system, and the potential to supplement with an additional five to seven from the general city security team. But he acknowledged that is not enough to cover all routes and stops seven days a week.

He said that security now focuses most heavily on Albuquerque Rapid Transit and the Lomas and Menaul routes, but that his staff would prepare a more specific plan for councilors.

“We can come up with a written plan that addresses the concerns that are being raised (by councilors),” he said.

DIRECTOR DEPARTURES: There has been some significant turnover in the upper reaches of Albuquerque city government, with three department directors leaving their jobs in the past month.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller confirmed that Brennon Williams retired in August as head of the Planning Department “for personal family reasons.” He had been with Planning for 15 years, and the director since 2019.

Ryan Mast, who took over at the city’s Environmental Health Department in early 2020, left last month, also for family reasons, city spokeswoman Ava Montoya said in an email.

City Economic Development Director Synthia Jaramillo is also moving on. Montoya said Jaramillo has taken a job as the senior vice president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.


Jessica Dyer: jdyer@abqjournal.com

 

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