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Free rides: Sun Tran drops fares during CV-19 crisis

Tucson bus riders will get a bit of a financial break during the coronavirus outbreak, with Sun Tran zeroing out all fares. Riders should enter by the rear door, and sit apart as much as possible, officials said.

The free rides kick in Saturday, with fares waived on Sun Tran buses, the Sun Link streetcar and Sun Van, officials said Friday. Free rides will also be offered by the Sun Shuttle service.

The city's fare-free policy will run at least through the end of March.

"Transit is an essential service and will remain available during this time," said city spokesman Andy Squire.

Starting Saturday, all Sun Shuttle, Sun Shuttle ADA Dial-a-Ride and Oro Valley Sun Shuttle Dial-a-Ride services will have free fares, as well, the Regional Transportation Authority announced Friday afternoon. 

"In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, the public is encouraged to use Sun Shuttle for essential needs," RTA officials said, encouraging social distancing.

From the city: "For the safety of our drivers, with  the exception of persons using mobility devices, riders will enter and exit the bus from the rear access door. A yellow line and rope have been placed behind the driver to help promote social distancing. Additionally, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the City of Tucson would ask the public to only use transit for essential services. When utilizing the service, please practice six feet social distancing among passengers. Please keep in mind, loitering on public transit is prohibited."

"Ridership is down significantly; people are practicing social distancing naturally on the buses," Squire told TucsonSentinel.com.

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But city officials are prepared for an uptick.

"Next week, if people need to get to a store, if they can't fill their gas tank, if they're looking for work, we want to be there," Squire said.

"Cost is not a primary consideration," he said. "We want to serve the community in a time of crisis."

Sun Tran generally collects about 20 percent of its revenues through "fare box recovery" — payments collected from riders.

The city will explore reimbursement from the federal Department of Transportation for the shift to free rides at a later date, Squire said.

Some drivers have expressed concerns about their ability to maintain clean buses and having to interact with riders paying fares. While the city recently directed riders to enter via the rear door of buses, they still had to walk to the front of the bus to use the fare box.

The new policy eliminates that interaction with drivers.

Sun Tran this week put out a directive "stepping up the cleaning process," Squire said.

A photograph circulating on social media earlier in the week, which showed an explainer card about the "free fares" policy, was taken while the move was still being discussed.

The photo, which was shared on Facebook and elsewhere, led to some riders being confused when they were still asked to pay their fares.

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