The Zero Fares Pilot Program received a one-time $3 million appropriation to establish no-cost rides on city buses. (Getty Images)
City Councilors again revised the proposal to scale back Albuquerque’s Zero Fares Pilot Program on Monday, kicking the final vote down the road until the council meets in January.
The latest proposal would allow anyone to use their government-issued ID to ride city buses for free. People who don’t have an ID will be required to either apply for a free pass or buy a ticket. Councilors will also vote to institute penalties like misdemeanor charges for anyone violating the new ordinance.
If passed, this would replace the existing “hop-on-and-go” system by requiring all riders to show a bus driver an ID, pass or ticket when boarding. It also resurrects the ticketing process, laying the groundwork for future fare collection.
At previous City Council meetings the discussion centered on public safety. On Monday, councilors in support of changing the program shifted their tone. No one referenced safety issues during the meeting. Instead, discussion focused on if showing an ID, pass, or ticket counted as a ‘zero fare’ program — and if paratransit would be included.
Albuquerque’s public transit system is funded by a variety of sources, including federal grants and the transit GRT funds via the Mid-Region Council of Governments.
The Zero Fares Pilot Program received a one-time $3 million appropriation to establish no-cost rides on city buses in 2022. The money comes from the city’s general fund and is offset in part by previous bus fare revenues.
But the pilot project is only funded until June 30, 2023.
At this point, there has been no public discussion by the city council about establishing the Zero Fares policy as a permanent line item and no one has identified a recurring revenue stream to fund it.
Officials with the Transit Department said they are still unable to estimate future costs.
“At this point, a final decision on our future fare structure is yet to be determined. Therefore some details, including cost to implement and maintain any new system, remain unclear,” ABQ Ride spokesperson Megan Holcomb said in an email.
The transit department acknowledged that administering another new system should the measure pass would increase costs but stopped short of saying it would need additional funding because it would be pulling in fares again.
“The potential addition of a fare and/or pass will obviously add costs into the system including the need to produce and sell fare media, operate and maintain fare boxes, along with additional staffing to manage the pass distribution,” Holcomb said.
But she was quick to add that because, “there will also be revenue from those individuals that choose to pay the full fare,” future projections remain unclear.
Zero vs. free
Councilor Klarissa Peña inadvertently highlighted the difference between the hop-on-and-go program that exists today and is called “Zero Fares” and the proposal, which would institute “free fares.” Peña is one of the measure’s sponsors and made the motion to strike and replace all references to “free fares” in the proposal with the previous name “Zero Fares” before submitting the substitute bill for approval.
Tom Menicucci, Council analyst, explained that his understanding of the language distinction was that getting on the bus with “zero” requirements was what the Zero Fares project enabled, while getting on the bus without having to pay a fee but still having to show an ID, pass or ticket to the driver was what “free fares” indicated.
“When we scribed the bill, we had used ‘free fare’ because at the time we felt “zero fare” — the concept was you just walk on and off the bus without any any pass required or anything,” Menicucci said. “ But that’s not copyrighted nor is there any formal definition, so if the sponsors would like to use ‘zero fair,’ there’s nothing stopping them.”
Councilor Brook Basaan also reiterated the difference in the two terms.
“I was under the impression that free fares and zero fares are quite different. And that was why we really made a big deal out of passing a Zero Fares program,” Bassan said.
During public comment, Althea May Atherton, a community member and transit rider expressed concerns about the language change from free fares to zero fares.
“I find it extremely misleading to call this ‘zero fare.’ I think it’ll be damaging to our tourism industry to tell people ‘Oh, we have zero fare,’ and then have it work completely differently than it does in every other city in the country,” they said.”I’m just really kind of surprised and shocked that you all just did that substitution.”
Before the Zero Fare program, transit charged people with disabilities $2 per ride and limited the number of rides they could request in a day. Based on the language in the SunVan brochure, Transit had planned to reinstate the fee after the end of the Zero Fares pilot program.
Under the substitute bill that was introduced on Monday, paratransit riders will also be able to ride for free but unlike the ABQRide patrons, they will not be able to show an ID in order to use the bus.
Peña asserted that when theTransit Department was approached about including the SunVan riders with the other riders in the new proposal Transit initially resisted because of the loss of revenue.
“Transit had stated that they would like us to take the paratransit out because they get $2 for every rider and I said, ‘No, if we’re talking zero fares, then we’re talking zero fares.’ I wanted that to include SunVan as well,” Peña said.
By limiting Zero Fares to the bus and neglecting to establish a way for paratransit riders to use the SunVan as often as they wanted — and without having to engage in a lengthy, bureaucratic application and pass process — the program afforded privileges to some riders and ignored those who are the most vulnerable, Peña asserted.
Transit Director Leslie Keener explained to Peña when questioned that the fee waiver made it into the proposal but there were federal requirements for paratransit riders to fill out an application.
“It still would include SunVan — it would be zero fare, but we are just saying that they still have to go through the SunVan application process,” Keener said. “But once they do that, and are qualified to ride SunVan, for ADA requirements, at that point, it would be a zero fare for them.”
Peña responded that she was disappointed that the new version of the bill still included SunVan riders having to engage in the application process and thus not being truly a ‘zero’ fares experience. The new bill does not address if there would still be limits on the numbers of rides paratransit riders could request in a day.
“When people are talking about barriers for people who are using paratransit, those are the same challenges. They’re the most vulnerable,” Peña said.
The final vote on the bill is now scheduled for Jan. 4, 2023.
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This story was updated on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022 at 10:24 a.m. to reflect the correct gender pronoun for Althea May Atherton.
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