Tucson extends free Sun Tran rides through June 30, mulls how to lift bus fares long-term
The Tucson City Council extended fare-free Sun Tran public transit until June 30 at a Tuesday study session. The city is also seeking partnerships with the University of Arizona, Tucson Unified School District and private businesses to help cover the $10 million revenue loss from continuing to offer free fares.
Sun Tran has stopped collecting fares since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 202. The Council has since passed a six-month extension of that fare moratorium four times, including the motion they unanimously approved on Tuesday.
The majority of the council voiced their desire on Tuesday to keep Sun Tran buses free, along with companion services such as the Sun Link streetcar and Sun Van. But the city is at a loss for how it will cover the $10 million shortfall that continued free ridership would create.
The city budget sets aside $53 million to cover Sun Tran services, City Manager Michael Ortega said at the study session. That includes $9.1 million to continue free fares until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, when the latest extension will expire.
When Sun Tran fares were first lifted, the city had the help of federal money to make up the shortfall in fare revenue. To continue suspending fares, the city would need to set aside more from their general fund to keep Sun Tran running.
The city is looking for public and private partners in the Tucson area who might benefit from free Sun Tran ridership, but Ortega said on Tuesday that it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s a little more difficult than just suggesting, ‘Hey, contribute,” Ortega said. “They want to see some data. They want to see some info.”
The Council was eager to get some help from the University of Arizona, whose students make up 70% of Sun Link riders. Mayor Regina Romero and Ortega said that they had met with UA President Robert Robbins and his staff, but both said that Robbins was hesitant.
“In fairness, they said this is a great idea except we’d like to see more data,” Ortega said.
“The University of Arizona is not really seeing the benefit of being a big investor in public transit,” Romero said. “I’ve invited President Robbins to look at it as: it’s not just students, but it’s faculty and staff that use not just our Sun Link system but also our bus system.”
Romero added that the UA should think about the city’s offer as “a strategy to work with us, the city of Tucson, on climate action because the more people you get out of their car, the less CO2 emissions.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice for you not to have to build more parking garages on very valuable land on the University of Arizona?” Romero said. “There are many wins for the University of Arizona to jump in as a partner.”
The city has “to get President Robbins to think beyond students,” she said.
Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik, who was laid off from his job in UA Athletics in 2020, said that the city should try harder to leverage Sun Link ridership by UA students. The UA should at least help cover the $6.5 million that it costs the city of Tucson to run Sun Link, he said at the study session.
“If the UA is asking for data, one data point you can give them is that 70% of Sun Link riders are UA students,” he said. “So if they want to pick up 70% of that $6 million, that would be wonderful.”
East Side Councilman Paul Cunningham worried about the council’s approach, saying he was doubtful that any possible partners in Tucson would give the city money if Sun Tran is already free.
“From a negotiating standpoint, we’re never going to get them to give us money for something we’re not charging for,” he said. “There’s no way I’d do it if I were in their position.”
Four other organizations that were mentioned Tuesday as possible partners were Pima Community College, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Tucson Airport Authority and the Tucson Unified School District.
Romero and Ortega said that TUSD was favorable to working with the city to continue offering free rides to their students.
“TUSD is actually very open to having a fare-free transit for their students, possibly faculty and staff,” Romero said.
Ortega said he had not reached out to other public school districts though he will. He’s “not as worried about that,” however, “because quite frankly, TUSD would be the largest user.”
The city is looking in the private sector as well for possible investors. Ortega said that Raytheon is already a partner and that “we have others out there that could go down this path.”
In the meantime, Ortega said that the city “is scrubbing the data and really identifying what those partnerships might look like going forward.”
Other smaller ideas came up to reduce the revenue loss at least in part. South Side Councilman Richard Fimbres said advertising revenue may help offset costs. Romero considered adjusting parking rates. West Side Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz suggested focusing on getting more riders to bring in more federal support.
While making the motion to extend the fare moratorium, Santa Cruz added direction to the city manager and staff to come up with revenue forecasts for any possible sources of tax or fee revenue that could help the city cover the deficit. She included a utility fee on water, a convenience fee on electricity, a tax on rental cars, a hotel occupancy, a secondary property tax, another taxing district like the Regional Transportation Authority and "any other idea that is realistic for us to consider."
Before the pandemic, a Sun Tran annual rider’s pass could cost as much as $480 while 30-day passes cost $48. Full fares, which covered unlimited rides for 2 hours, cost $1.75. Reduced fares were available for low-income riders and offered monthly passes as $22.50 and economy fares at $.75. Kids 5 and under were already able to ride free.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.