Albuquerque City Council passes bus bill without killing zero-fare program - Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque City Council passes bus bill without killing zero-fare program

An Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus approaches the Yucca station on West Central. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque’s public transit system will get an additional $1 million for security, and the guards who patrol it are poised to get more authority.

Under newly approved legislation, the city will develop short- and long-range plans to address security issues — such as a system for denying access to abusive riders — and make vehicles, bus stops and stations cleaner and more attractive.

By the time the City Council voted Monday to pass the bill, it already had undergone multiple rewrites and generated hours of debate across months of meetings. Introduced in October by Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña as a way to improve system safety, the bill ultimately evolved into a compromise with Pat Davis and Tammy Fiebelkorn, taking pieces of a competing Davis/Fiebelkorn proposal and adding the two as sponsors.

The transformation included removing the bill’s most controversial element: a requirement that the city swap its current zero-fares-for-all pilot with a pass-or-pay system. Only riders with a city-issued pass, driver’s license or other accepted ID would have been able to ride for free under an earlier version of the bill.

Some things were added in the process too; the legislation now eases the qualification process for the city’s Sun Van service — a point-to-point, reservation-based transit operation serving people who are disabled and cannot use the standard buses — by allowing anyone to “self-certify” that they’re eligible without a screening process or physician paperwork.

“This keeps zero fares in place until the end of the pilot program which is a huge win for Albuquerque,” Fiebelkorn said. “It also provides better access to our most vulnerable citizens by allowing self-attesting for Sun Van users, and it provides better security for every single person in Albuquerque who rides the bus.”

The city launched zero fares in January 2022 and has budgeted for them to continue through at least June 30, 2023. Under the approved bill, the City Council cannot make a decision on their future until the Transit Department provides a full analysis of the pilot and recommendations about how to proceed.

Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement after the vote that he supports free fares and his administration would work to make the transit system as “effective and equitable as possible.”

“Everyone should be able to access public transportation and feel safe using it in Albuquerque,” he said.

Fiebelkorn, Peña and Davis all reflected Monday on how many councilors contributed to the final legislation, noting that nobody got everything they wanted out of it; in fact, Lewis — an original sponsor — voted against the final version, as did Brook Bassan, though Lewis said he hoped the debate was worthwhile in helping fix a bus system “nobody is proud of” right now.

“I just hope maybe through the process that we’re seeing some of the reality of what’s going on in our bus system,” he said, citing dirty facilities and unhappy drivers.

Though she ultimately voted for the bill, Councilor Trudy Jones expressed specific reservations about the changes to the Sun Van system. She said she worried that allowing anyone to proclaim that they qualify could bring out people who simply prefer the point-to-point service to regular buses, perhaps pulling limited city resources from those who really need it.

“It’s one of those things that sounds like a good thing to do, but is it really? Are we harming the people that the Sun Van is supposed to be helping?” she said.

Other councilors and Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael echoed some of her concerns, but proponents of the change said it could be reconsidered if problems arise.

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