Lissa Knudsen

(New Mexico Source) The Albuquerque City Council continued its efforts to end the hop-on-and-go Zero Fares program, citing safety concerns despite city data showing that the buses have become more accessible and safer since the program was implemented last January.

Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña’s substitute bill replaces an earlier version, and if approved, would end the Zero Fares program by June 2023.

The new proposal includes free rides to anyone who is under age 10 and over 62, or who has a student or government issued military or medicare card. And, — at least initially — bus riders will still be able to get a bus pass for free but unlike the current system, it will require riders to show that pass, or a ticket, to the driver when they board.

The City is calling the new pass a “universal pass.” The potential bus riders will be able to get a universal pass either via an application on a personal communication device that can store the pass on the device, through a website that allows the applicant to print a temporary paper pass with a one month term and then will receive a durable pass card via the United States Mail, or by going in person to the Transit Department or an authorized distributor, according to the proposed ordinance.

Everyone else will have to pay the $1 fee for ABQ Ride passes and the $2 fee for the SunVan.

Details about who the distributors will be and how the process will work are expected to be hammered out after the bill is approved by Council and signed into law by the mayor.

The proposal designates $250,000 for the development of a fare pass distributors program, a study to evaluate the fare boxes and fare pass process, and a Transit Security Plan.

The new version of the bill was accepted by the Council unanimously (8-0) with only Councilor Trudy Jones excused due to absence. It is scheduled to be heard for a final vote Dec 5, 2022.

The mayor’s office has yet to indicate how they feel about the new proposal, but they confirmed that their priorities for transit are accessibility and safety.

“We’ll carefully review the legislation that comes to us from the City Council, taking into consideration its impacts to accessibility and safety,” Ava Montoya, the mayor’s spokesperson said.

Concerns about safety on public transit were mentioned throughout Monday’s council meeting and are listed in the bill’s introduction as a justification for why the Council is proposing to end the City’s current program.

The number of total security incidents seemed to have increased as ridership increased, according to data from the city’s transportation department. However, a closer look at the data shows that the Zero Fares program has actually resulted in a decrease in the number of security incidents.

According to the Transit department’s Zero Bus Fares reports, security incidents decreased from 313 in Jan. 2022 to 250 in Sept. 2022, which is more than a 20% decrease, despite a 17% increase in riders.

The Kansas City Transit found that in the three years since the Kansas City Zero Fares program started, it “increased mobility and financial benefits” for riders and even made a better overall experience. “That points to one of the more counterintuitive benefits of eliminating fares: The buses became safer to ride,” reported Next City.

Albuquerque’s program is just months old so it’s unclear how the Zero Fares program here has impacted the overall ride experience for passengers and drivers, the Transit department said.

“While bus fares in Kansas City have remained free for several years, zero fares in Albuquerque was passed by City Council as a pilot program to test whether a similar program could work for our community,” Megan Holcomb, the Transit spokesperson said.

“The Transit Department was tasked with collecting data to determine how to proceed once the program had concluded. We have stated that there are several factors that play into ridership, security incidents, and other data sets, making it difficult to determine how much influence the Zero Fares Pilot Program has had on those numbers, and therefore its overall success,” Holcomb added.

But the city council is moving forward to end the program with concerns about safety, despite the data showing that incidents are going down on the city’s buses.

The Zero Fares reports include a footnote clarifying that the increase in security calls included security checks that include routine patrol by police officers to ensure bus stops and transit centers “many of the items logged in this category result in no further action necessary,” according to the report.

When this is taken into account, security incidents actually declined since Albuquerque made bus rides free.

Tom Menicucci, Council Analyst, suggested the Metro Security data councilors are citing as their argument to improve safety, is believed to be unreliable and explained that the proposed bill allocates funds to improve the data collection process.

“A little bit more resources can go into collecting this data,” Menicucci said.

The data is collected by the Metro Security Division who as of yet do not have a dedicated dispatcher and thus their officers and their supervisors have had to compile the reports on top of all of their other responsibilities, Menicucci said.

“This is kind of a burden and that, of course, kind of risks getting the data correct. This would just help get that all corrected and straightened out,” Menicucci said.

Despite the number of security incidents declining since the Zero Fares program went into effect, City Councilor Brook Bassan said that Albuquerque Police officers, certain members of the administration and her constituents have all said the buses are not safe.

“I'm hearing from constituents that say that they do feel unsafe. There's many people that are coming out to say that they feel safe — that they don't see a problem with any of our public transit in that regard — but there are people that are speaking out, they're just not coming out in quite the same amount of collective voice,” Bassan said.

Increased Surveillance

APD Chief Harold Medina dodged a question during the meeting about whether requiring passes would improve safety on the bus, and instead said that having passes would make it easier to track people.

“You know what it would do,” Medina answered, ”it would give us investigative leads. If they had a way where somebody was documenting who was on the bus and who was utilizing the bus, we could use that information to help us track individuals down and see where individuals are,” Medina said.

He went on to add that most of the complaints about buses being used as “get away vehicles” have been coming from businesses in the Uptown area.

“It would give us an idea about where to be looking and into individual suspects that we may be trying to apprehend and take into custody and charge,” Medina said.

Criminalization as Deterrent

The bill also includes a call for a tactical plan which will establish a “no-ride” list and includes training to bus drivers on how to prevent access to transit by individuals “who have been abusive or dangerous toward drivers or the public.”

The loss of access to transit will be “for an appropriate period of time” and will also involve the offender in the criminal legal system by issuing “a trespass citation or other appropriate means.”

The new proposal also criminalizes the attempt to ride the bus without showing a pass or paying the fare.

If someone fails to either pay for a ticket, show a bus pass registered in their name or show an authorized photo identification card, they will be guilty of a misdemeanor under the new rules.

Medina also testified during the meeting that the biggest issue APD was seeing with the buses was loitering and people congregating at the bus stops.

Loitering, Urine, and Buses Serving as Mobile Shelters
Gregory Sherman, who spoke during the Council meeting and is a regular bus rider, thinks that Zero Fares isn’t the real problem.

“I can’t help but feel that the City Council is arguing over the wrong thing,” Sherman said after the meeting.

“Fares or no fare is always going to be very contentious; meanwhile at the (Albuquerque Transit Center) there are no open bathrooms” Sherman said.

The public restrooms are either super dirty, being used for drug use, or they are supposedly “under construction,” Sherman said.

“Isn’t this a more important issue than fares or no fares; ID or no ID?” Sherman asked.

Councilor Basson said that the reason she originally opposed the Zero Fares bus program was that she expected unhoused people would likely start riding the bus as a safe place to sleep rather than because they wanted to get to a specific destination.

“There are people that need to have somewhere to stay warm or to be cool and they might be choosing to be on the bus, and just spend the day on it,” Bassan said. “And that makes sense in some regards, because they need some kind of shelter.”