Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Riding a city bus will no longer cost a buck come 2022.
The Albuquerque City Council on Monday formalized the long-discussed zero-fare pilot program for its bus system, passing legislation that makes it effective Jan. 1.
It has been four months since the council approved funding for the project – setting aside $3 million to offset revenue losses – and far longer since advocates began pushing for such a program. But some councilors had recently hesitated to set it in motion, voicing reservations about whether the city had adequately planned for security problems that might arise when there is no financial barrier to boarding.
A presentation during Monday’s meeting from the Department of Municipal Development’s security division seemed to quell those concerns, and a bill establishing the pilot’s start date sailed through on an 8-0 vote.
“This is something people really do care about, and it will make a difference,” said Councilor Pat Davis, who co-sponsored the bill with Isaac Benton, Klarissa Peña and Lan Sena.
Several residents spoke in support of the legislation during public comment, saying the zero-fare model will have community-wide benefits, but is especially meaningful for low-income people who rely on the bus to go about their daily business.
Speakers included the associate director with Catholic Charities’ refugee support program, who related stories from refugees who’d been laughed at or scared about being late for work when they boarded without enough money.
“Free fares for their families would be a game-changer, allowing them to experience Albuquerque more fully and removing an obstacle for them to get to their jobs, school, places of worship and community events,” Sarah Azibo said.
Another speaker noted that free rides will help people who are homeless access “the programs we say are available to them” throughout the city.
Rides were already free for certain groups, including students 25 and younger, and people 60 and older. Adults who do not qualify for any exemption currently pay $1 per trip or $2 for a day pass. The pilot will make it free across the board.
“It’s just time to get this done,” Peña said.
Despite his sponsorship of the bill, Benton contended at the last council meeting the zero-fare program did not seem “ready for prime time.” He said he had been waiting for the kind of security presentation the council received Monday, which covered staffing levels, existing incident response data and the city’s “three-fold approach” to addressing issues, which includes officers riding buses and some in mobile units responding to calls.
Though Benton questioned the completeness of the incident data – 135 transit-related security responses during the first six months of 2021 – he said he believed the security division was “looking at this thoroughly” and was heartened by the plan to hire more personnel. There are 31 security officers on staff now, five more in training and five open positions. There are 10 more transit security jobs coming online.
The pilot project is slated to last for 12 months.
“My administration looks forward to learning from this important pilot and will continue to finalize the implementation plan with support from community members, bus drivers, and public safety departments,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement.