TUCSON (KVOA) - Since just after the start of the pandemic, riders using Tucson public transit have not had to pay fares on SunTran, SunLink and SunVan.
That move last March, along with other changes, including requiring the use of face coverings, having riders board through the rear doors of SunTran buses, plus nightly deep-cleanings of vehicles and transit centers, were all steps meant to improve safety for riders and drivers alike.
We expected fares to be re-instated within a few months, however as the pandemic has continued, so too have the free rides.
Early last June, the city told us they planned to reinstate fares following the installation of safety barriers on the buses between the drivers and fareboxes.
The idea was to keep everyone on-board safe. However, there is also another reason for the fare waiver.
"The other idea is that it would help with our most vulnerable population, given the economic impact of the pandemic," said Tucson Transit Administrator Rhett Crowninshield.
Last year, the city received $44 million from the Federal Transit Administration CARES Act. Those funds were used to cover operating costs, and to help make up for lost revenue of about $700,000 per month.
"That money has been made up through the FTA, and the grant revenue we received, so we're in very good shape financially,” Crowninshield told News 4 Tucson.
The pandemic has also caused a major impact on the number of people using public transit, with SunTran losing more than 39% of their riders last April, and streetcar ridership plummeting by nearly 83%. A big reason for the drop in the latter was the fact that the the University of Arizona took most of their classes online, and off-campus.
“The lack of students being in session hit SunLink very hard. The second driver is folks downtown - going to work downtown, so with people, again, working remotely, that has impacted ridership,” Crowninshield added.
The situation is starting to improve, with the number of Sun Tran riders being off only by about 11% last December when compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“We've bounced back quickly in the southern Arizona region, which bodes well moving into the future in terms of making up some of those lost revenues.” Crowninshield told the Digging Deeper team.
Earlier this month, the city decided to keep fares free through June, which is the end of the fiscal year.
In addition to waiving fares, SunTran has also been working hard to keep buses and transit centers clean, including nightly deep-cleanings.
They also plan to apply for more federal grant money, to help keep things moving forward.