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Two Albuquerque city councilors want to end the zero-fare bus pilot, formally reinstating fees but making free passes widely available to anyone who applies.
Klarissa Peña, a Democrat and a co-sponsor of the original zero-fare pilot, collaborated with Republican Dan Lewis on the new proposal.
Their bill cites the rising security issues on the city’s transit system since rides became free for all on Jan. 1.
“I think the data is telling us that (security problems have grown with the zero-fare model), and I am totally disappointed,” Peña said. “I believe that most people riding the bus are riding the bus for the right reason and then we have some folks who are utilizing the bus and creating these incidents.
“It’s unfortunate this small minority – the very small minority – is kind of forcing us to have to do this.”
The proposal would create a new pass system that allows any rider to board for free after completing an application, showing photo identification and providing “other information the Transit Department requires for orderly management of a bus fare pass system.”
The passes will have tracking numbers and be good for 36 months on all city buses and – for those who qualify – also on the city’s Sun Van paratransit service.
Those without photo IDs are eligible for a nonrenewable 30-day pass.
Peña said the city already requires a similar application process for its Sun Vans, including from riders like her brother who are developmentally disabled, so she does not consider it an insurmountable barrier.
“I think by doing this we make sure people feel more comfortable being on the bus. When anyone can just get on the bus and shoot off a shotgun while riding a bus, that’s alarming,” said Peña, citing a high-profile August incident during which an Albuquerque Rapid Transit passenger fired a gun inside an occupied bus.
The city’s transit system – including buses, stops and transportation centers – has generated an average of 606 calls per month in 2022, according to the most recent numbers available. Immediately prior to the pilot program, it averaged 450 a month, though the city only started tracking that data in late 2021.
Councilor Pat Davis – who co-sponsored the original zero-fare legislation – said he will not support the new proposal. He said there were issues on the bus before the pilot that no pass system prevented and contends bolstering the city’s security guard ranks is preferable to putting the responsibility on individual riders to seek and apply for passes.
“What it really sounds like is a way to prohibit some people who have the least access to existing city services from accessing one more, which is public transit,” Davis said.
The new legislation requires a number of reports and studies. That includes exploring the feasibility of a fare box system that records pass use, including the date, time, route and boarding location; it also requires the city to develop a short-range “tactical plan,” long-term security program and an incident tracking system.
The tactical plan will include procedures to prevent transit access by those “who have been abusive or dangerous toward drivers or the public (while in a vehicle or at a stop) by causing them to lose access to transit for an appropriate period of time via a trespass citation or other appropriate means.”
“After hearing from constituents, bus drivers, and even the Attorney General about safety on our transit system, it became clear that we need to change our approach in order to continue providing quality and safe transit services,” Councilor Dan Lewis said in a written statement.
The council last year approved an ordinance to eliminate bus fares on a pilot basis for all of 2022 and provided a $3 million subsidy to replace the lost revenue. The council this spring passed a new budget with funding to extend the pilot through June 30, 2023.
Under the Lewis/Peña legislation, the reinstated fare would be $1, but city officials could make short-term changes on an “experimental” basis. The bill requires putting all new revenue into a special fund specifically to increase salaries for bus and Sun Van drivers. Bus drivers are historically hard to hire and keep, and the city has such a current shortage that officials say the Transit Department is sometimes skipping routes without notice due to staffing problems.
The city’s starting wage for bus drivers is $15.44 per hour.
A Transit Department spokeswoman said it is too soon to weigh in on the proposal.
“Because the legislation was just introduced last night, it is too early for the Transit Department to comment,” spokeswoman Megan Holcomb said in a written statement to the Journal. “We will, however, stay up to date and provide necessary information as the ordinance moves through the Council process.”