ABQ councilors dealt competing proposals for bus program
Council defers controversial changes to Zero Fares (again)
Proposals for how the city of Albuquerque should handle public buses draw broader conversations in the Council and the community about transit equity and fear of crime. (Getty Images)
The Albuquerque City Council continues to take its time to determine the fate of the Zero Fares Program, a transportation project that allows any city bus rider to hop on and go without having to show anything to the driver.
The Council decided again last week to postpone a final vote on an ordinance that would end the Zero Fares Program and replace it with a system where bus drivers will periodically check if riders either have an approved ID, a city-issued pass or a ticket.
A decision is expected during the next meeting on Jan. 18, when councilors will also have to debate another proposal that seeks to keep Zero Fares until June 2023, make it permanent on ART routes and increase transit security budgets by up to $1 million.
“I just feel like we’re making it the hardest for the most disadvantaged people in our community to use the system,” Northeast Heights City Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn said about the efforts to end the Zero Fares Program.
Fiebelkorn and Councilor Pat Davis are sponsoring an ordinance that would allow Zero Fares to complete the pilot project and calls for a subsequent study to analyze if it’s something the city wants permanently.
These competing proposals are exposing a split in the Council.
City buses became free for riders when the Zero Fares Program started in January 2022.
Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña started trying to roll that back in October, saying they were concerned about crime, though much of the data and reasoning used in those arguments has been debunked.
Their proposal keeps rides free but requires riders to have an actual bus pass to get on, or show a valid form of identification like a driver’s license or state ID, or student, senior and military ID.
Opponents pointed out that even though the bus would be free for most people, the proposal from Lewis and Peña would create additional burdens for those who most need to ride the bus, and it would be expensive for the city to build the infrastructure.
“It would definitely be adding some delay and additional time to the buses,” CABQ Transit Director Leslie Keener said.
“You basically get on the bus — no one would check you,” Keener said. “We’d have just random checks throughout a driver’s trip that they would then go and check who’s on the bus and make sure that they have the appropriate identification to be on, whether it be the free pass or one of the automatic rider identifications.”
Keener estimated that a new fares program would cost nearly $1 million to implement a ticketing and free-pass system. She said the city would need to both re-establish the fare boxes and purchase the technology for a mobile app that riders would show drivers.
“We are looking at a substantial amount of money to implement the free pass system,” Keener said.
It is predicted that there would also be a recurring yearly expense to cover the costs of administering the program.
In addition to higher costs, the Lewis-Peña plan also creates barriers for people who do not have identification.
To submit an application, people would have to provide contact information. People without an address or cell phone would likely have to get additional help from a service provider or agency.
Fiebelkorn said she is worried that the Council is setting up a system where people are going to have to potentially lie about having a home address just to get on the bus.
“If they’re willing to lie and say there’s a place that we could contact them — they could get a pass. But if they’re not, then they can’t get a pass,” Fiebelkorn said.
Members of the public commented that requiring IDs would also be a burden for high school students.
Volcano Vista student and CABQ Youth Advisory Council member Kayla Hynes spoke during public comment arguing that requiring IDs would also be a burden for high school students.
Hynes highlighted the school bus shortage across the APS school system, and explained that some students have been relying on city buses to get home when their school buses have been canceled.
“On several occasions at my own school, bus transportation is canceled for some students just minutes before the final bell rings for the day,” Hynes said.
Hynes added that because students are rarely required to show their student IDs at school, carrying them is not like carrying a drivers license.
“Many students, including myself, don’t really think about bringing identification or money to school every day,” Hynes said.
Those in favor of the proposal to change the system in place said that the current hop-on-and-go program has led to a rise in drug use and violence on the city’s buses.
“I’m hearing from the drivers that the minute we switched to a zero-fare program that life changed for them: driving the bus wasn’t as fun anymore, driving the bus became more of a problem,” West Side City Councilor Louie Sanchez said.
Sanchez was an APD Southeast Area Command Sergeant and said before the Zero Fares Program, he and two APD officers would ride the bus in the Southeast Heights area and would often arrest people for using drugs at bus stops.
Sanchez said he would ride the bus, and when it would pull up to a bus stop, he would see illegal activity, walk off the bus and then make the arrest.
“We would make at least three or four arrests with one up-and-down trip on the bus,” Sanchez said in an interview with Source New Mexico. “We’d catch them red-handed in the middle of illegal activity.”
The counter-proposal from Fiebelkorn and Davis not only looks to increase transit security budget, but it would create additional penalties for people who are loitering at bus stops with no intent to ride.
The Lewis-Peña plan includes criminal penalties for anyone who rides the bus without a pass or ID.
Despite acknowledging that illegal drug use was a problem before Zero Fares began, Sanchez expressed support for the Lewis-Peña plan and said that once more funding is added to better address security concerns, he plans to vote in favor.
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