Bus drivers say 'lawlessness abounds' on fare-free Tucson transit system

Bus drivers say 'lawlessness abounds' on fare-free Tucson transit system

Tucson's Teamster union released a letter May 1 asking for an end to the zero-fare policy, which it blames for the recent spike in crime on routes.
May 6, 2022

By Sam Kmack, Arizona Daily Star

The debate around permanently nixing Tucson's transit fares has heated up once again, with local bus drivers calling for an end to the pricey policy that they say breeds crime, and city officials locking horns over the best way forward with only a month left to make a decision.

Council members have mulled the idea of a fare-free transit system since 2020, when they paused fare collection as a COVID-19 relief measure. The policy applied to the entire system — city buses, the streetcar and Sun Van — and will expire in June unless council members extend it.

Eliminating fares forever would cost local taxpayers anywhere between $800,000 and $1 million each month, while saving the typical rider about $40 in that same timeframe — but it's not the cost-benefit that has local bus drivers worried.

Tucson's Teamster union released a letter May 1 asking for an end to the policy, which it blames for the recent spike in crime on routes. Assaults on drivers and riders tripled between 2019 and 2021 — from 21 to 64 — while the number of vandalism incidents increased to 146, more than double what it was before fares were paused.

"I literally saw a guy pull down his pants and poop on the bench that our passengers are supposed to be sitting on," said union representative Rebecca Hepburn at a city transit meeting, who added that she was recently hospitalized after being exposed to drugs on her route. "It's gotten way out of hand."

Hepburn described the union's letter opposing a fare-free system as a "cry for help" and said the issue will get far worse this summer, when homeless activity on the buses — the main factor creating the unsafe conditions, according to the union — is expected to skyrocket as people look for ways to escape the heat.

"Gone are (typical riders), replaced by an ever-increasing number of unhoused and displaced individuals," the union's letter read. "We have become a mobile refuge from the elements, frequented by drug users, the mentally ill and violent offenders that have made Sun Tran unsafe to ride."

Pushing everyday riders away

The condition of Tucson's transit system raises other questions about how it might impact the quality of service for everyday riders. City figures show that bus ridership is still down about 10% compared to what it was before the pandemic.

That's slightly better than 2021, when about 12.2 million people rode the bus — 12% fewer than in 2019 — but city and union officials insist the "unsafe" conditions are still driving people away, especially given how much the pandemic has waned since last year.

"I've spoken with Sun Tran management and they confirmed that we're driving discretionary riders away, we're losing drivers as a result of some of the behavioral things that we're seeing on the buses," Councilman Steve Kozachik said. "There have been riders who need to use the bus saying simply, 'this is over the top.'"

The ongoing security issues might also throw a wrench in the city's funding plans for a fare-free system.

Officials have discussed partnering with local school districts to help cover the $9 million to $12 million loss in fare revenue, for example. The idea is that students can use city buses to get to school, so their districts should contribute to help cover costs.

Six months ago council members like Nikki Lee admitted that the buses needed to be made safer before those partnerships could happen, saying "I think that's really important, especially if we're going to talk to school districts and those synergies that could be achieved, that we're really also integrating security into that."

But the situation hasn't improved much since then, according to union officials who wrote that there's still only one security "rover" to cover the entire network and that transit supervisors aren't instructed to help when they see a driver being attacked.

"(It makes) it nearly impossible for a driver to get much needed assistance when security issues arise," the union wrote.

Loss of drivers may spell more trouble

Hepburn said the city has lost a large number of drivers as a result of those issues, a problem made worse by recruiting difficulties that the union says has also stemmed from the crime situation. Fewer drivers means existing workers need to "pick up the slack," become burnt-out and quit without any new workers available to fill their position.

The cycle of understaffing has played out in many city offices over the past year and can even have an impact on services like Sun Van — a transit option for disabled residents who can't ride normal buses — that aren't directly impacted by the crime spike.

"We have about 350 drivers right now, and it's pretty scary. We had a whole lot more beforehand," she said. "A lot of other drivers kind of had to pick up the slack (and) they pulled runs in order to keep the city afloat during the pandemic."

Sun Van has lost 53 employees or about 30% of its drivers since 2019, though its ridership is down by only about 17% and growing faster than any other transit service except for the streetcar. Nearly 50% more people used Sun Van this March than they did last March, for example, and that trend has been ongoing since at least January.

The staffing problem on Sun Van could also create bigger issues for the city. Federal anti-discrimination laws require Tucson to provide an "equivalent (transit) service to individuals with disabilities," which includes picking them up within 15 minutes of their scheduled ride.

About 96% of Sun Van rides met that standard before the pandemic. City data shows that figure has dropped by eight percentage points since then.

If the number of drivers remains the same while ridership continues to increase — something that could be more likely with a permanent fare-free system — on-time pick-up rates may continue to tank, pushing Tucson out of compliance with federal disability laws.

"I certainly see the benefit of (fare-free transit), but I also see there are challenges with it," said Sam Credio, Tucson's new transportation director. "I think the best thing we can do as staff is provide the mayor and council with the best information to help them make an informed decision."

One month to make a decision

That decision has to be made by June 7, the due date for next year's budget that needs to include millions for a fare-free system if council members choose to adopt that policy.

There are three main options on the table at this point: keeping transit free, going back to pre-pandemic fare collection, or issuing free transit passes for low-income residents while still requiring others to pay.

Fully returning to fare collection seems to be the least popular option on the council, though eliminating fares completely has received support from officials including Mayor Regina Romero and Vice Mayor Lane Santa Cruz — perhaps the most outspoken proponent of that policy.

"The safety-related problems that are being brought up were in place prior to the pandemic," Santa Cruz said at Tuesday's council meeting, despite the marked increase in those incidents since 2019. "I think public transit is a public service and I could argue that there are people who can afford to pay for police to respond to calls. But it's a public service, it's a public need, so we pay for it with our taxes."

Going fare-free would make it easier for impoverished Tucsonans to get around town and could be an environmentally-friendly option if it reduces the number of cars on the road.

Fare revenue will never fully cover the cost of operating the transit system, either: the city has been spending tens-of-millions to subsidize the system for decades, so charging people to ride the bus won't eliminate costs.

But other officials said the third option, which involves giving some free rides but charging those who can afford to pay, could save millions that would otherwise be taken out of the general fund.

"When we instituted the fare-free buses we were playing with house money, that was all done with federal dollars, and we're now losing about $9 million at the farebox," Kozachik said. "My proposal is not going to recoup all $9 million, but wouldn't it be nice to get $4 million back? We can do that without hurting the people who absolutely need free transit."

Kozachik's plan was also supported by the bus driver's union, which suggested in its recent letter that the passes could be handed out at places like libraries and grocery stores.

It's unclear how much it would cost to install card readers on all city buses, but the union believes it could combat crime by making it easier to identify those who misbehave on the bus.

Using "tokens" that can serve as free passes without having to invest in card-scanning systems was another option mentioned by Kozachik, who added that passes could be handed out at drug treatment facilities to ensure that homeless people still benefit from the program.

"If someone's not engaged in a program where they can get these passes, that's not the person who's presenting themselves at a treatment facility or at a transit center getting the free card," he said. "The guy getting on the bus who's strung out and causing the problems is not the one who's actively engaged in a treatment program."

Officials have to make their decision during one of the next two council meetings. Even after that vote is taken, the city will have to address the driver shortage, which may be a longer-term issue.


(c) 2022 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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