ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Could Albuquerque become the next major American city to eliminate bus fares for every rider?
City Councilor Pat Davis says he’s now working on a proposal for free bus rides for everyone, system-wide. He’s hoping to float the idea for council and mayor approval during the city’s next budget session starting in April.
“I’ve asked our staff to take a really hard look at nuts and bolts, how would we implement this,” Davis said in an interview with KRQE News 13. “When we talk to other cities and look how it’s worked, it’s had real positive impacts on neighborhoods particularly for kids, and so we can start from there.”
The idea comes after Mayor Tim Keller spearheaded a free youth bus pass program over the summer, where the city handed out hundreds of free bus passes. Davis says a group of Highland High School students continued with the idea.
“Students at Highland High school who got together and wanted to help other students find a way to participate in more after school programs and found kids that weren’t able to come to school because they weren’t able to find a parent to get them there,” Davis said.
According to city budget documents from the fiscal year 2019, Albuquerque spent about $54-million to run its entire transit department between July 2018 and July 2019. In that same time frame, Davis says the city collected about $3-million in bus ticket fares but spent about $1.5-million to collect and maintain its fare system.
“We’re not making a lot of money on transit,” Davis said. “What if we allow every youth in Albuquerque to access our bus free for the first year? And if that works, let’s expand that to everybody.”
Davis says he is still drafting his proposal, but thinks that if it gets the support from Albuquerque City Council and Mayor Tim Keller, free bus fare could be available to youth riders by Summer 2020, and potentially to adults by Summer 2021. Davis says he envisions his proposal encompassing both fixed route and Sun Van services.
A formerly homeless veteran and frequent bus rider, Nick Zajac told KRQE News 13 Tuesday the bus is the “primary reason” he’s not homeless anymore.
“Because I am a veteran and I get free access to the bus, that allowed me access to my work, I work now,” Zajac said. “Without the bus, you know, I’m dead in the water.”
Davis believes the benefits of a system-wide free bus system in Albuquerque could outweigh the costs the city would incur from not collecting fare revenue.
“People have access to more jobs outside their neighborhood, kids can access summer and after school programs and truancy rates go down,” Davis said.
Bus riders like Zajac see both ups and downs.
“There’s a lot more crime, I noticed, on the bus for having a free fare,” said Zajac, speaking to his personal experience riding the ART bus during the month-long stretch of free trips when the system debuted.
“The only way I got out of this (homelessness) was with a free bus pass from being a veteran,” said Zajac.
Albuquerque currently charges $1 dollar per adult; $0.35 cents for students aged ten through high school, “honored citizens” or seniors aged 62+ and those with mobility challenges. The bus is already free for kids under age ten. A regular, one-day bus pass is $2 dollars. The city hasn’t changed its bus fare prices since 2002.