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Dear Mr. Mayor ….

Dear Mayor Rothschild:bullhorn silhouette

You have some of my climate-activist friends believing you want Tucson to do its part to save Southern Arizona and the planet from self-destruction.  I have heard you speak with evident concern about poverty among children in our community.

And yet you say our budget is in such a state that we simply must raise bus fares, and probably cut frequencies on some routes.  It’s just not credible.

Do we have any interest in growing the economy without increasing congestion and pollution?  There are only two things that have historically cut down on traffic congestion.  (Hint: building/ widening roads is not one of them.)  They are economic collapse and congestion pricing.  The problem with congestion pricing is it’s not politically feasible without transit that is a viable option for many drivers.  You basically have to build more transit than you’re already using.  So that’s a long-run scenario, and if we’re not working toward it, we’re charging away from it.  (See, e.g., high-density sprawl, increasingly congested arterials on the southwest side, underserved by Sun Tran.)

In the shorter term, how is the projected increase in revenue from fare increases being calculated? How much of this “hole” is it expected to fill?

I attend most of the Transit Task Force meetings.  When I asked for the origin of the elasticity model used to estimate the effects of fare changes, Sun Tran staff didn’t know the answer.  But several weeks later I got the reply from Mary McLain:  “The industry model used is based upon a paper, entitled ‘Fare Elasticity and Its Application to Forecasting Transit Demand,’ published in August 1991 by the American Public Transit Administration.”

Numerous literature reviews since 2004 have pointed out the shortcomings of this model, which is based on short-range studies of limited size conducted mostly in the 1970s and 80s.  It’s a poor fit in today’s world where more people own cars, more are concerned about their carbon footprint, and bus fares take a higher portion of one’s income; where young people are less inclined to drive and older people are more numerous.

The old model tends to understate the long-term effects of fare increases on ridership, and to underpredict the pollution/ congestion benefits of transit use.  Price sensitivity is higher over the long term (over a period of five years, elasticity approaches 1.0, i.e., you can lose as much as you gain).  It’s also higher at higher fares.  So the next fare increase will likely have a greater negative impact on ridership than the last one.  And it’s higher among riders who are not dependent on transit alone — the ones we all say we want to attract.

At the same time, we’re trying to shift riders to a new payment system (when riders were surveyed in September for the COA, the preferred payment mode was still cash) that, if widely used, will save operating costs and yield a great deal of useful data; introduce and integrate the modern streetcar; and adjust routing and schedules — meanwhile continuing to do a lousy job of communicating our service to new or occasional users.  Raising the price of the service — and cutting frequency when increased frequency is the top rider-requested improvement — will only exacerbate the ridership losses.

Therefore we have no idea what will be the actual impact (+ or -) of fare increases on Sun Tran’s bottom line.  But we *can* predict other impacts, if not their magnitude. Less spending money for riders.  Less mobility for non-drivers; more cars on the road.  More of a family’s budget spent on transportation, whether it’s gas or bus fares.  Work shifts missed.  Young folks staying home.  Parents skipping errands.  These are things that *shrink the economy.*

The streetcar is coming, under the guise of investment in public transit.  Meanwhile, TDOT marginalizes the bus system in every way.  Why is parking sold and managed by one agency that uses all the city communication channels available (slick ads by DTP, plenty of slots for brochures in the kiosk at City Hall where I can’t find a Ride Guide, a spiffy office open longer hours than the transit services office, notices about where to park on every jury summons and event flyer and ad infinitum) while the transit agency has a largely useless website, a tiny marketing budget, and no imagination?

The good ideas are out there; please stop threatening the bus system we have so we can focus our energies on helping you sell it to more Tucsonans, increase the proportion of riders paying the regular fare, thereby increasing revenue and improving the system along with everyone’s quality of life!


Just another bus rider


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Who We Are

The Tucson Bus Riders Union is a group of community members, businesses, and organizations committed to building a first class bus system in Tucson. We have been organizing bus riders and their allies to keep the bus fares low, the routes plentiful, and the Ronstadt Transit Center downtown. We are making sure Tucson’s transit system serves all residents in the most affordable, convenient, and easy-to-use way -- join us!

What we want

1. Keep fares affordable, do not raise them.

2. Extend routes and increase frequencies, do not cut them.

3. Maintain local control, do not cede the bus system to the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA).

4. Keep bus dollars on the buses -- do not use bus funds for streetcar expenses.

5. Improve the Ronstadt Center at its current downtown location to better serve bus riders' needs.

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