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Albuquerque Could Soon Make Buses Fare-Free

Courtesy City of Albuquerque
Albuquerque Rapid Transit Bus on Central Ave.

The standard bus fare in Albuquerque is a dollar, or two bucks for a day pass. Community advocates have long called on the city to make the busses free and the city’s Transit Advisory Board is now doing the same. The board unanimously passed a resolution last month calling for the city to eliminate fares for everyone, including both youth and adults. Now, the City Council has joined in by including a “fare-free” model in the budget priorities it sent to Mayor Tim Keller last week. KUNM’s Nash Jones spoke with Israel Chávez, Chair of the City’s Transit Advisory Board, about how it would work. 

ISRAEL CHÁVEZ: We don't charge people to walk on sidewalks, we don't charge people for the street sweepers that come or the trash pickup. And so, what we need to do is take the same approach with transit and the taxes that are already imposed on transit should be the revenue that transit depends on.

KUNM: The Albuquerque City Council approved their budget priorities last week, which included a “fare-free” model. Is that in line with what the transit board hopes to see?

CHÁVEZ: I think so, it's an important first step. The council is going to start with youth riding the buses for free. The council has to pass an authorizing bill. The city currently doesn't allow transit to be free. So, it will likely take a year to reach a full fare-free model.

KUNM: What is in the way of it being permissible to do that?

CHÁVEZ: There's a City Council ordinance that requires transit to collect revenues. We want to remove that so that the transit department isn't tied to that revenue generation.

KUNM: The community organization for young men of color, Together for Brothers, and others have advocated for free bus fare for a while. What have you heard from community members about what this move would mean for them?

CHÁVEZ: Essentially, people want to see a better system. And if we take the fare revenues out of the equation, transit is able to think about how to make the system better instead of how to increase fare revenue, which sometimes are two very different concepts. Currently, in my opinion, when transit makes a decision about how it's going to change the line, it bases those decisions on farebox revenues. But, if you remove fare revenue from the equation, you focus on how to generate that ridership instead of seeing revenue already there and saying, ‘oh, we need more buses there, because that's where the fare revenue is’.

KUNM: How much annual revenue does the city see from public transportation fares?

CHÁVEZ: The city's overall budget, it ends up being less than half a percent. It's about $3.5 million annually, but that does not include what it costs to collect those fares.

KUNM: What would it look like then for the city to lose that revenue, and would it be made up for elsewhere?

CHÁVEZ: I hate to sort of downplay $3.5 million, but for a city with a budget of nearly $1 billion, $3.5 million is relatively low. And this is a step that really helps a lot of people. Folks have been working with legislators to find a state revenue source that is recurring. Currently,State Rep. Javier Martínez has indicated that he thinks that there's a really good chance that that can exist. When you look at it from a state level, making the largest city’s buses free, $3.5 million is really, really a small amount for the state. Over 100 cities have made their transit systems free, and to my knowledge, all of the hundred cities that have done it have seen an increase in ridership, which gives them more access to federal dollars. So, we'll be able to make up that difference, I think, relatively quickly.

KUNM: So, you mentioned other cities have done this. How has it worked out for those communities?

CHÁVEZ: To my knowledge, people love it. I mean, everybody wants to be able to access an uncomplicated system of transportation. You want to be to be able to hop on and hop off. A lot of the cities with the most successful systems have systems that are easy to use and free.

KUNM: What would it mean for Albuquerque to be the largest metro area yet to do something like this?

CHÁVEZ: I think it would show some serious investment in transit equity, right? It goes back to Rosa Parks sitting on the front of a bus, bracero workers riding buses to work and then riding buses to strike, Freedom Riders riding buses across the country to protest Jim Crow laws. Buses are such an integral part of our history as a country. And if Albuquerque can lead the nation in making these buses free, what it's really going to do is show that we care about those people who need the buses and who choose to take the bus.  

KUNM: So, what's the likelihood this will be adopted in the coming fiscal year?

CHÁVEZ: I think really good. It sounds like the mayor's office is supportive of the idea. I think they want to work out the logistics. I'd like to see it done quicker, but sometimes we got to be patient on things and I'm going to continue to fight for the next year and make sure that we get it as soon as we can.

KUNM: So, what's next for the initiative?

CHÁVEZ: I think right now, the mayor’s got to draft up the budget, include it in the budget, we've got to advocate to our legislators that this is an important initiative. We want to see investments in creative things like transit, that are going to help our economy. It's going to boost businesses along every bus route and we just have to advocate to our civic leaders about that.

KUNM: Israel Chávez, thanks for speaking with me.

CHÁVEZ: Thank you. Appreciate you having me.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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