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Ed Ackerley on Tucson's failed "free" transit program.

Free Bus Rides Are Not Free.

With the Tucson Mayor and City Council's May 10 decision to extend free bus rides on Sun Tran through 2023, it begs the question, is free really free?

Since March 2020, when the gratis fares went into effect in response to COVID-19, Sun Tran has racked up a $9.1 million deficit on top of the $105 million allocated to operate the system. Mayor Regina Romero is asking the University of Arizona, Pima Community College, and school districts to kick in money to keep fares free while exploring alternative funding streams like more advertising on buses, increasing parking fees, and an additional charge on hotel/motel taxes.

While the Mayor and City Council remain committed to the idea laid out in an April memo by Deputy City Manager Timothy Thomure, 'fare-free operations can be implemented to promote transit usage, reduce barriers to transit, and improve equity in transit services,' the frontline men and women at the wheel may not see it that way.

In June 2022, Kevin Hampton, a Teamsters Union worker representing Sun Tran employees, sounded the alarm in a KGUN 9 story, saying the mentally ill and drug addled homeless population is creating an unsafe environment for riders and employees.

The union logged assaults on drivers from 2017-2021, with data showing assaults skyrocketing in 2020, when free fares were approved. The violence continues, frustrating employees.

Hampton says buses serve as rolling air conditioning in summer, adding homeless and mentally ill use drugs, consume alcohol, relieve themselves, vandalize buses, and assault drivers.

The Tucson Crime Free coalition espouses Sun Tran is now a way to transport fentanyl around the community. Organized retail theft is being facilitated as criminals time getaways with the bus schedule.

Some Tucsonans can't afford to pay bus fare; some can and may prefer new investment to expand and improve services.

When considering continuing free fares, or any changes designed to remove rider barriers, we need to ensure a sustainable funding stream, use rider input to inform decisions, ensure a balance between service improvement and expansion, and use equity to target such programs.

What's unknown, and crucial, is what effect is this daily threat to health and safety having on law abiding Tucsonans who rely on Sun Tran? Nana going to the store or doctor; kids getting to school; neighbors going to work.

Ask yourself, should anyone needing the bus be frightened to ride it? Should Sun Tran employees be terrified of working their shift?

Who benefits from the free bus fares mandated by the Mayor and City Council? Is it you, the majority of Tucsonans just trying to get somewhere, or the unhoused and fentanyl addicts who really benefit from free rides?

Is free really free? A resounding NO.

Ed Ackerley is a native Tucsonan, owner of a small business, and Independent candidate for Mayor.

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