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The debate over keeping free public transit in Tucson

The debate over keeping free public transit in Tucson
Posted at 5:51 PM, Jun 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-07 20:51:28-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Tucson's public transit has been free since the beginning of the pandemic. Free fares make taking public transit accessible to anyone. That may sound like a good thing, but Sun Tran workers say it's causing major issues.

Kevin Hampton works with the labor union for Sun Tran and Sun Van employees called teamsters.

“They’re using the buses as rolling heaters in the winters and rolling A.C. units in the summertime,” Hampton said.

He says the mentally ill homeless population is creating an unsafe environment for riders and employees.

“Using drugs on the bus consuming alcohol, relieving themselves on the bus, vandalizing the bus when called out on their actions and in some cases assaulting the drivers,” Hampton said.

Teamsters logged assaults on Tucson bus drivers from 2017 to 2021. Their data shows the number of assaults skyrocketed in 2020, when City Council approved free public transit. This increase in violence has continued into 2022, frustrating employees.

“They’re hired to transport people from one destination to another, they’re not transit police, they’re not police officers, they’re not mental health experts,” Hampton said.

Teamsters links these problems to free fares, which allow anyone to ride public transit. But Tucson’s Vice Mayor says accessibility is important for low-income families.

“Especially when we’re seeing rent increases, housing costs going up, food costs going up, inflation gas, all of it," said Lane Santa Cruz, Tucson’s Vice Mayor. "It’s one less thing for families to worry about.”

Santa Cruz says the City Council needs context around these violent incidents. Once they get that, then they can discuss improving policy to protect drivers.

“We continue to extend fare free transit through the end of December of 2022, so we can have a better picture of the decision we have to make,” Santa Cruz said.

In October, council members will discuss ways to improve public safety while maintaining free transit.