ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Albuquerque’s City Council could decide Monday night whether bus rides should be free, permanently. It’s a $3 million question and a question that also carries safety concerns.
Not only is the city council looking at making riding ART buses and Sun Vans free, but the ordinance would also make it a crime to mess with the people trying to keep everyone safe on the bus.
According to the ordinance, ABQ Ride and Sun Van Paratransit give millions of rides a year to people of all abilities. Tens of thousands of people are dependent on these bus lines to get them where they need to go; that’s why there’s a push to make it free to ride in perpetuity.
“These particular routes: the ART and the Sun Van, are really serving some of our most disadvantaged community members. And so it’s really important to me, and I think to a lot of people in Albuquerque, that those folks, the folks that need mobility the most, have access to it and not have a barrier of ‘can you afford to get to your doctor’s appointment? Can you afford to get to the grocery store or to your job?'” says Tammy Fiebelkorn, Albuquerque city councilor.
City officials recognize that making it free might mean there will be a need for more security, and there’s a provision for those folks in the law. “It’s already a crime to hurt someone, obviously, but this is just spelling out that it is a specific crime to, in any way, assault or harm transit staff,” Fiebelkorn says.
These free rides could mean a revenue loss of around $3 million. “For me, that is not a trade-off that I’m concerned about. I think it’s government’s role to make sure there is mobility in our area,” Fiebelkorn says, “I’m unaware of any transit system in the United States that pays for itself. These are expensive buses; it’s expensive to maintain them. It’s expensive to have drivers and maintenance and all of those things that go into it…My concern is more about making sure that Albuquerque residents can get where they need to go…The couple of million dollars, while that’s a lot of money, when you look at it in the context of our overall budget, and all the services that we need to provide to our citizens, it’s not that large.”
Folks who spoke with KRQE News 13 about this possible change had mixed feelings:
“Paying for the bus fare, it’s tremendously difficult to round up the money and being able to get the cash to ride the bus and then, you know, two dollars every single day or you get a bus pass and you lose it, makes it a lot harder,” says Malachi Jolley, who uses the Albuquerque bus system to commute. “I would be tremendously grateful. Just because the bus is something that I use to commute every single day, and with the bus fare being free, I’m very grateful that it is free. I know in other cities it’s not, and it makes a big difference. And it would be really great if they kept the bus free.”
“On the buses, there’s always like, fights. And all….probably the homeless would probably be an issue,” says Desiree Lopez, who also rides the Albuquerque bus system, “I kind of think they should go back to paying.”
The pilot program for the free fares is set to continue through the late summer; however, if this ordinance passes Monday night, it could mean that folks who regularly use the ART Bus and Sun Van systems would never have to pay a fare again.
According to data from the city’s transit department, the bus system has been averaging more than 500,000 rides a month since the free ride trial began – this is a slight uptick from the months leading up to its inception, however, ridership is still at only half the rate it was eight years ago.