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Riders board the ART bus at the Popejoy stop.

City Council: Tensions high over deferred proposal to end zero fare

On Monday, Nov. 7, the Albuquerque City Council unanimously deferred an ordinance which would end the current zero-fare bus program and replace it with a bus pass model. The ordinance will be heard again on Monday, Dec. 5.

The proposed free bus pass model would require those who wish to ride on Albuquerque transit to present a photo ID or free bus pass with tracking information on it. The application for the free pass would also require a photo ID. A nonrenewable 30-day pass would be available to those without a photo ID. The new fare would be set at $1 for buses and $2 for the Sun Van Paratransit Service for those who do not or cannot obtain the bus pass.

The ordinance also asks that $150,000 be allocated toward the study and development of a “fare distribution management program” and a study on farebox management.

Councilor Dan Lewis said that this ordinance, which he co-sponsored with Councilor Klarissa Peña, was based on a mixture of internal data and anecdotal evidence speaking to the increase of incidents on the bus since the creation of the zero-fare program.

Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn strongly opposed the newly proposed ordinance; she pointed out that of the $150,000 asked for in appropriations, none of it is actually going toward increased security measures, the supposed rationale behind the ordinance. On top of that, there is no established way to track those who choose to pay the fare.

“I just don’t understand what we’re doing here. I don’t understand how tracking some people but not everyone — I mean, again, I can just go on and pay a dollar, and you have no way of tracking me. So, it just doesn’t seem to be solving the problem, the stated problem, which is that there are security issues on transit, which have always been there,” Fiebelkorn said.

According to a fact sheet presented to the City Council in October of this year, the proportion of incidents to riders on the bus has not increased from the 0.12% before zero-fare bussing, according to Councilor Pat Davis. In addition, city of Albuquerque transit director Leslie Keener said that around 60% of security calls to buses are currently routine security checks which rarely need further action, whereas those only accounted for about 38% of security calls before zero-fare bussing.

Both the text of the ordinance and Councilor Brook Bassan brought up the idea that the bus system was being taken advantage of and used by criminals as a getaway vehicle. Despite the fact that deputy chief of police Harold Medina said it was one of the top concerns of the department in regards to the bus program, the department could not provide any actual data to back up the claim when Davis asked, despite the fact that it should be easily traceable through police reports.

“What we see is that, according to the transit department’s own data, there are fewer security incidents since zero-fare, and there are more preventative actions by the security agents … and so I just want to point out that we have a lot of speculation and we’re saying ‘well, this pass program is supposed to stop crime on the buses,’ but we have fewer incidents, more security officers,” Davis said.

Davis did agree that more security measures are needed at the bus stops; Medina said that the number one concern at the department related to bussing is loitering and incidents that occur at the stops.

Keener said that the transit department has been looking toward increasing security on the buses with mandatory bus driver de-escalation training and physical barriers for the drivers; the mobile security team for buses continues to remain active and 2,600 security cameras have been installed across bus systems in the city.

Fiebelkorn said that even if there was ample evidence of an increase in crime, this ordinance offers no real protections or tangible security measures against crime.

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“Even if you do think there are upticks since free fares, how is this solution an actual solution? How is saying that people who are poor and are gonna need to apply for a free bus pass get tracked, and people who have a dollar every time they wanna go somewhere (can) get on, get off at will. It seems very classist. I just can’t believe that this is the only answer we can come up with,” Fiebelkorn said.

Lewis pushed back against this, asserting that the ordinance was not meant to be a comprehensive measure to stop crime in the transit system and was not written to block people’s access to the program.

“We never said that this is purely about a direct correlation between the free bus fares program and public safety, but again, it’s a comprehensive way to look at, ‘how can we improve, how can we make it better? Here are some ideas' … I certainly take issue with anybody that would question Councilor Peña and I’s intentions of writing this in specifically, in any way to disparage anybody that rides the bus for any reason,’’ Lewis said.

The public comment was flooded with support for the zero-fare program and opposition to the proposed ordinance. Community member Anita Córdova spoke in public comment about the detrimental effects this program would have on Albuquerque’s most vulnerable populations.

“Any security issues, and ones that are clearly defined, can be addressed by the city. We have the knowledge and the community to make that happen. Transit riders support safe buses and zero fares. Our transit drivers, people who are experiencing homelessness and people who benefit from affordable housing will bear the brunt of any pass system,” Córdova said.

The next City Council meeting will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 21 at 5:00 p.m. at the Albuquerque Government Center.

Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo

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