Lissa Knudsen

(New Mexico Source) Albuquerque city councilors are weighing whether to end a popular Zero Fares Pilot Program for the bus system where riders don’t have to pay or show any kind of pass to get on a bus, arguing that the policy makes public transit less safe.

“Right now the buses are dirty and smell like urine,” said Councilor Dan Lewis, who represents the Westside. “There’s drug use, and even people that are homeless have said they don’t feel safe riding the bus.”

But the data may not actually show a connection between the new policy and new danger, city officials said. And advocates pointed out that the proposed rules could again put up roadblocks to accessing public transportation for the people who need to use it the most.

The city of Albuquerque joined the Kansas City Transit AuthorityChapel Hill Transit and a handful of other small urban transit programs in allowing people to ride the bus free and without showing any type of pass at the start of this year.

Westside City Councilors Lewis and Klarissa Peña have proposed an amendment to the program that would require riders to either register with the city for a free pass or pay a $1 fare. It’s scheduled to be heard at the Monday, Nov. 7 City Council meeting, though Lewis said it will likely be deferred until next month.

Julian Wong, who has been riding the blue line from the Northwest Transit Center to the University of New Mexico since he started going to school there two years ago, said he rides the bus because he likes saving money on gas and taking the bus is good for the environment.

“I think it’s a lot better for the city in the fact that the more people who ride the bus means the less cars driving around the city, less traffic, less gas used overall — less carbon emissions.”

Wong said he understands what the councilors are trying to do but isn’t sure that switching from a hop-on-and-go system to a bus pass system again — even if those are free bus passes — is the best way to go about it.

Even though he has the money to buy a bus pass, Wong said, he has appreciated the Zero Fares program because it was a hassle to remember to renew his pass.

“It kind of sucks when you have to find it and go and renew it and everything. It’s kind of annoying,” Wong said.

The numbers on safety

Lewis said there has been an increase in calls for service since the program was rolled out in January, contributing to rider and driver safety concerns.

There is some debate about the cause of the increase in calls. One thing is certain: More people have been taking the bus.

The Albuquerque Metro Security Division started tracking security data in October 2021, just three months before the pilot program began, according to Megan Holcomb, spokesperson for ABQ Ride.

“It is difficult to determine whether the increase in security calls is attributed to Zero Fares, as there are many other factors that are likely to be contributing, including the increase in crime across not only Albuquerque but the entire country,” Holcomb said.

Councilors Pat Davis and Tammy Feibelkorn said that different kinds of calls for service are being conflated, making the increased numbers hard to interpret.

“I’m concerned that when we initiated this pilot program, the Transit Department was not tracking calls at bus stops on city sidewalks or nearby addresses as “transit incidents.” Now they do, and naturally, calls for service go up, Davis said in an email.

Fiebelkorn echoed these concerns.

“When we say ‘call for service,’ that’s everything from ‘Hey, I saw a little graffiti or there was something on the floor’ to ‘There was a dangerous situation.’ So, even that can be misleading,” Feibelkorn said.

When asked about the increase in riders since the Zero Fares Program was implemented, Lewis denied that more people were riding the bus.

“Every report that we’re getting the ridership was down — year to year, month to month everything was just down,” Lewis said. “When we ride the buses, the ridership is down — you look at it, and people aren’t riding them.”

But the City’s Zero Fares reports show that — especially since Feb 25, 2022 when the federal mask mandate on public transportation systems across the country ended — monthly ridership has increased by more than 121,000 riders (31%).

Calls for service went up from 484 to 682 from January to September. But when you take into account the jump in how many people were riding the buses, the rate fluctuated by just a fraction of a percent — 0.04% and 0.08% — according to the Zero Fares reports (.04% equals 4 incidents per 10,000 bus riders).

Feeling unsafe

Councilors Lewis and Peña took a well-publicized bus ride together in early October as a way to gain a better understanding of the bus-riding experience.

During that trip, Councilor Lewis recounted that a fellow bus rider had been using illicit drugs while on the bus and at the bus stop. There is no way to verify this however because it was based on speculation, and there was no evidence collected.

Anita Cordova, chief advancement office for Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, serves as the president of the city’s Affordable Housing Coalition, and she interacts regularly with people who are living rough on the streets.

Cordova cautioned bus riders and city councilors not to conflate concerns for safety with other feelings that might be coming up when you are on the same bus as someone who has a substance use disorder or who is unhoused.

Seeing someone who is struggling “makes us feel a little uncomfortable, maybe sad, maybe all kinds of other feelings — but it's not unsafe,” Cordova said.

Lewis disagreed that concerns about who rides on the bus are rooted in anything but a genuine concern about safety.

“That is total bull crap. And, I absolutely disagree with her on that. So don't make this about race. Don't make this about, you know, that kind of crap,” Lewis said in response to a question about what Cordova said, during an interview that made no reference to race.

The proposed amendment requires the Transit Department to end Zero Fares on Dec. 31, but Lewis said that even if his and Peña’s amendment passes, the system will likely continue to the end of its pilot in July.

The bill sponsors are working with ABQ Ride on a plan that includes allowing the Zero Fares Program to continue to the end of its pilot in order to provide the department time to develop and implement a “security tactical plan” required by the ordinance.

“This allows the department time to institute a security system to address persons who refuse to pay a fare or to show a pass,” Lewis said in an email.

The price of a new system

If Lewis and Peña’s amendment passes, there will be increased programmatic costs to manage the bus pass database and to make tickets available to those who don’t have passes.

The Transit Department was not able to provide projected costs by the time this story was published, but Councilor Lewis shared that the city expects to have to provide passes to about 70,000 riders.

“They will need a few months to start the new pass program, and then a few months to work out the kinks, and then some more time for everyone to get a pass,” Lewis said.

The costs for other institutions

Managing a bus pass (free or otherwise) program will require infrastructure and staff hours for a number of other organizations across the city, as well. Albuquerque Public Schools, Title 1 Programs, UNM, Central New Mexico Community College, and a number of smaller organizations have historically had to allocate money to both purchase bus passes and to manage distribution and tracking efforts.

Before the Zero Fares Pilot Program, the UNM provided free bus stickers to their students, faculty and staff. The UNM program used to cost the university $100,000 annually, said university spokesperson Cinnamon Blair.

UNM fully supports programs that allow for free, accessible transit, Blair said, “as they play a critical role in ensuring equitable access to the university for students.

"Also, alternative transportation programs help balance the demand for parking by incentivizing the use of other modes of transportation," she added, "and reduce traffic congestion, which helps improve air quality for the metro area."

Creating a bus pass program is going to mean fewer resources available for other types of services. Healthcare for the Homeless was able to shift the $50,000 they used to spend on bus pass programming each year over to efforts to provide COVID safety environmental measures, Cordova pointed out.

Lewis said that the city is already mapping out how to make it easier for other organizations to distribute the passes.

“We are working with the administration to put together the technology needed to allow every agency organization around town to be able to help people and issue passes,” Lewis said.

Bus driver retention

ABQ RIDE is experiencing a severe driver shortage.

“We need bus drivers that are paid well, that are happy with their jobs and that aren't having to tell people to stop smoking fentanyl on the back of the bus,” Lewis said.

Earlier this year, that the city budgeted $4.5 million for the Zero Fares Program to backfill the lost bus pass revenue, but that hasn’t been enough to retain drivers.

Lewis said any revenue created by the proposed new swipe system will go directly to driver salaries.

“​​We know our drivers are underpaid, and so now, in this new bill, any revenue that comes in on the transit system goes directly to an increase in driver salaries,” Lewis said.

Fiebelkorn said an increased workload from managing the new bus pass system doesn’t make sense given the already low staffing numbers.

“A retake on the entire system and a lot of clunky, burdensome, new requirements is just a bad idea — not only for citizens but for the overly strapped transit employees,” she said.

CABQ Transit’s nearly FY 2023 $57 million budget makes up about 4% of the city’s total budget. Public safety’s nearly $390 million budget (combining police, civilian police oversight, community safety and firefighters) makes up more than 27% of the city’s total budget. This does not include the small portions of other departments' funding that have positions related to public safety, like the Department of Municipal Development, for instance, which has a budget line for bus security officers.

Reducing crime

Despite previous demands for better safety measures for drivers, AFSCME — the union that represents the city bus drivers — did not have a position on the proposed amendment, said Josh Anderson, union political action coordinator.

Lewis said he has it on good authority that the city’s bus system is enabling other crimes.

He said the state's attorney general “cited specific instances of shoplifters using the buses as getaway vehicles [and] he cited another instance of a drug dealer using the bus to transport drugs by having people that were able to still hop on and off."

When contacted, AG’s Office spokesperson Jerri Mares said there was evidence of one instance where this occurred and clarified that the AG’s Office was not “making an inference that bus rider fees are directly associated with criminal activity.”

“The Attorney General is expressing his hope that the City Council will review its safety practices when implementing policies, to strengthen public safety while maintaining reasonable access for the public,” Mares said in an emailed statement.

Councilor Fiebelkorn also agrees that improving transit safety is key to recruiting and retaining bus drivers but said she doesn’t believe that the proposed amendment will do that.

“What I see is the need for maybe more transit security, on the buses and more security at some of the bus stops,” Fiebelkorn said. “As we all know, the presence of security or police often minimize problems in areas, and so that's the easy answer here.”

Privacy concerns

The city recently tied all ABQ RIDE bus cameras to APD’s Real Time Crime Center "as a means to combat security issues on buses and transit centers,” according to Holcomb. Bus pass application forms may allow the city to collect personal rider information such as name and date of birth, which could be useful in finding people suspected of crimes.

Fiebelkorn warned, however, that this type of data collection may reduce the number of people who take the bus.

“People in low-income families that are in frontline communities do not participate in programs that require them to fill out forms and provide personal data to the government,” she said.

“What if somebody in your family is undocumented? What if you're undocumented? Are we really saying that we don't want these folks to be able to get where they need to go for their job and for family events, and to the doctor, for goodness sake?” Fiebelkorn asked.

Who is Albuquerque’s transit system for?

Unlike New York or other cities where the majority of the city relies on public transportation, Albuquerque is less dependent upon the transit system, Lewis said.

“Our bus system is not intended for everybody,” Lewis said.

Requiring a physical pass or a phone app — even if it is free — will likely make it harder for those that need the bus the most, Cordova said.

“Anybody who is living in an unhoused situation is really reliant and dependent on the few things and bags and stuff around them. And, if they are living rough on the streets and their encampment gets moved around, it is incredibly easy to lose, misplace or have your things disposed of if you can't carry them all at one time,” Cordova explained.

The stakes for somebody who is unhoused and dependent on public transportation are much higher, she said.

“They're trying to get to a food bank or a meal site before it closes. They're trying to get to a shelter before the doors shut or for the one bed left for them. They're trying to get to a public restroom that they can use before that building shuts down for the night. These are real true basic needs that are highly dependent on getting somewhere at a very specific time,” Cordova said.

When it comes to interactions, Wong said that being on the bus with unhoused people can be unnerving, but that being on the bus has also provided the time and opportunity to have some conversations with folks.

“When they made the buses free, there's a lot more homeless people that do get on the bus, and they can look a little bit suspicious sometimes,” Wong said.

But he added riding the bus has created opportunities for him to get to know people who are living on the streets.

“One of the people I talked to says he wouldn't be able to afford a bus pass and that he needs to take the bus in order to get around the city and in order to work because he picks up jobs wherever they are,” Wong said.

Wong said that based on those conversations, access to mass transit is especially important for those who are unhoused and struggling.

“It definitely helps homeless people get around the city, and maybe helps them a lot more, which is one of the things I like about the Zero Fares Program” Wong said. “Because I feel like other people kind of get more of a chance in the city to do what they need to do.”