ABQ council may not decide zero-fares bus service fate for months

City Council may not decide the fate of ABQ’s zero-fares bus service future for months

The debate over zero-fare bus service in Albuquerque is not over — and a final decision about whether to stay the current course or go a new direction could be many months away. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

The debate over zero-fare bus service in Albuquerque is not over — and a final decision about whether to stay the current course or go in a new direction could be many months away.

City Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña had sponsored legislation to replace the current free-ride system — a pilot project that allows anybody to board without payment or documentation — with a model that limits free boarding only to those with a city-issued pass or some type of identification. Everyone else would have to pay $1 per trip or $2 per day pass.

But the council on Wednesday accepted for consideration a rewrite of that bill that no longer requires the city to implement a new pass-or-pay system.

The compromise bill that the council will vote on Feb. 6 carries forward some parts of the Lewis/Peña bill, including requirements that the city administration develop short- and long-term security plans for the transit network. It also incorporates pieces of a competing bill sponsored by Councilors Pat Davis and Tammy Fiebelkorn.

That includes preserving a long-term decision about zero fares for another day.

The legislation would maintain zero fares until the city administration completes a wide-ranging analysis of the pilot and submits to the council recommendations about how to proceed. That report is not due until Sept. 30, at which time the City Council could determine whether to continue as-is or make changes.

Fiebelkorn called it a compromise “that actually makes sense and addresses what I think are the major issues.”

That includes boosting security: the bill allocates another $1 million for transit security and adds transit officers to the definition of “peace officers” who maintain public order and can make arrests.

Councilor Louie Sanchez said bus drivers he has talked to do not want the current zero-fare system to end until the city better manages security incidents because they believe the transition to requiring passes or IDs could be contentious.

“That’s going to put our bus drivers in jeopardy,” he said.

The compromise proposal does not rule out passes in the future. It requires that any administration recommendation to continue zero fares also include a “cost-benefit analysis of the potential for creating a fare box universal pass-identification program as a method for improving security and safety” that covers the operational expenses, methods for pass distribution and day-to-day logistics of a pass system.

Lewis emphasized the urgency of making the system better, noting that he recently took the bus for the first time in about 20 years and saw problems that ranged from dirty stops to on-board drug use.

“I just don’t want people to get the idea somehow that our bus system is clean and safe, and the ridership is up, and bus drivers are happy and everything is wonderful,” he said. “Because that could not be further from the truth right now.”

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