Final decision on Albuquerque’s free bus fare program on hold, again

Council combines multiple public transit bills before deferring a final vote on the program’s future

By: - January 19, 2023 4:48 am
The red line pulls up to an Albuquerque Rapid Transit stop in Nob Hill in 2021.

The red line pulls up to an Albuquerque Rapid Transit stop in Nob Hill in 2021. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

The fate of Albuquerque’s Zero Fares program, which allows anyone to board a bus without paying or showing a pass, will be decided at a future City Council meeting after councilors agreed Wednesday to delay a vote until next month’s meeting. This marks the fourth time the Council has deferred a vote on the matter.

Wednesday’s deferment followed a decision by the Council to combine elements of multiple bills dealing with transit services into one bill that counselors can vote on at a later date.

The combined elements of the merged legislation include provisions for things like increased security on buses and at stops, along with $1 million for security costs. It also includes plans to convert the role of transit security guards into certified law enforcement officers in order to give them more authority to enforce transit laws and policies, and to make arrests in cases where crimes have been committed. Another aim of the combined bill is to streamline access to the city’s Sun Vans, an ADA-compliant alternative to fixed-route buses.

ABQ councilors dealt competing proposals for bus program

If passed by the Council, the merged bill would essentially create a new pilot program, and at the conclusion, a study would be conducted to determine the effectiveness of the changes made to the program.

Councilors have been debating for months whether to make the Zero Fares Pilot Program permanent, issue additional stipulations or scrap it altogether. Before the launch of Zero Fares, city buses cost $1 per trip, or $2 for a day pass. Monthly passes were also available, starting around $30.

While passengers currently do not have to pay a fare or show a pass to ride a city bus, Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña previously introduced a plan that would keep the bus free, but require a pass in order to board. Under the proposal, riders would have to complete an application and show photo identification to obtain the pass.

Opponents of requiring such a pass expressed concerns that these kinds of requirements could create barriers for people who rely on the bus for transportation.

For many, like Ivey McClelland, city buses are the most affordable way to get to work or medical appointments. McClelland lives in Albuquerque’s International District and uses the bus almost daily to get to her job in Uptown. Though the city’s buses are her main form of transportation, she occasionally uses taxis and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, particularly on weekends when bus service is limited or unavailable. However, those are expensive alternatives to public transportation, McClelland said, often costing her more than $25 for a three-mile ride to work.

McClelland had been riding the bus for free before Zero Fares took effect through the city’s senior services, which allowed anyone 60 and older to ride for free. However, she said the Zero Fares program was still a welcomed change because her younger brother lives with her and, prior to the program, he still had to pay to ride.

“I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “I’d like to see them extend the program, because if you go back having passes, and making people pay a dollar, it inconveniences too many people, especially us seniors.”

Security on buses and at stops remains a top issue for riders and bus drivers alike, Councilor Louie Sanchez said during Wednesday’s meeting. He said he spoke with a driver who told him that during his morning route, he picks up 13 people that are headed to work, while many others use the bus for shelter. Sanchez argued that removing the $1 fare has created an increased need for security.

“We already had security in terms of having a fare,” he said. “Now that we don’t have a fare, we need to concentrate on security.”

Councilors: Albuquerque’s hop-on-and-go bus program made it too easy for the wrong kind of riders

Councilor Lewis, one of the proponents of requiring a pass for free rides, recounted a recent and widely publicized bus ride he took where he said he witnessed two people using fentanyl on the bus during his first ride in 20 years.

“I just don’t want people to get the idea somehow that our bus system is clean, and safe, and ridership is up, bus drivers are happy and everything is wonderful, because that just could not be further from the truth right now,” Lewis said.

McClelland said that personal safety is a growing concern for her, and though she used to have reservations about riding city buses at night, in recent months, at times, she’s felt unsafe even during the day.

“The thing (my brother and I) don’t like about it is all the riff-raff — the ‘entertainment,’ as we call it,” she said with a chuckle. “And I see security guards on the buses, but they’re unarmed. They’re basically just Paul Blart — observe and report.”

Still, McClelland supports the Zero Fares program and doesn’t want to see any sort of pass requirement implemented because she feels it would be too inconvenient, particularly to seniors or the disabled.

“But if they’re going to issue passes, have them at the libraries, because the library is a lot easier for people to get to,” she said.

Until the Council makes a final decision on the Zero Fares program, city buses remain free to ride, without any kind of pass or ID needed to board.

The Council will take up the issue once again during its Feb. 6 meeting.


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Ryan Lowery
Ryan Lowery

Ryan Lowery is an award-winning independent journalist based in Albuquerque. He covers politics and criminal justice and has reported on New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic, Santa Fe Reporter, Los Angeles Times and others. Lowery was awarded the 2020 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and the 2021 Sunshine Award from the New Mexico Press Association for his reporting that highlighted lack of transparency from multiple government agencies.