Exploring What ART is Supposed to Be About, The Bus: Part I


The intense scrutiny and controversy over Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) has had something of an argumentative disconnect in terms of ART’s role within the overall ABQ Ride transit system. A big reason for this is that approximately zero of the politically powerful players arguing, on either side, actually ride the bus. And one gets the strong impression this condition will not change, whether ART exists or not.

In addition to illustrating how relatively powerless Burque’s actual transit users are, leaving the transit system largely out of the ART debate unfortunately constrains needed conversations about ABQ Ride, pedestrian aspects of getting to the bus, and the multi-modal importance of ABQ’s Complete Streets ordinance.

Cynical multi-modal advocates would have no problem asserting these argumentative constraints are in place by choice and that anti-Complete Streets forces have largely already won the ART debate by moving the noisy conversation away from the purpose of the project, the bus.

So let’s spend some time, roughly 5 to 5,000 posts, at BB moving that focus back to the transportational “reason for the season,” and examine a bit more deeply ABQ’s bus service as it is now and its likely condition in coming years.

We’ll start with an interesting bit of City Council legislation passed last year, sponsored by Council Isaac Benton. Resolution R-14-137 calls for ABQ Ride to achieve a farebox recovery ratio of .25 (or 25%) by the end of Fiscal Year 2022 (June 30, 2022).  What is “farebox recovery ratio”? Simply put, it’s the ratio between how much bus fares bring in, versus how much the bus system cost to operate.  As most folks know, and as zealous keyboard internet comment warriors are keen to tell us, transit systems are subsidized, not bringing in enough dollars in fares to equal expenses. What the warriors don’t tell you is that ALL modes of road transportation are subsidized, including that of motor vehicles.

Speaking of ratios, it would be interesting to graph the relationship between percentage of transit ridership in a community and outraged comments about farebox recovery ratio. With its relatively small ridership, Albuquerque sees a LOT of comments like this one by “Jerry McLellan” attacking an ART defender in response  to a recent Dan McKay Albuquerque Journal piece:

So you are willing to help foot the bill of 40-50 million for a bus system that you will never use? I’m guessing that only 3-5% of the population of ABQ even ride the bus.

One interesting aspect of Mr. McLellan’s very common argument is that his figure of $40-50M as the locally funded part of ART is right at the annual transit budget of ABQ Ride. The newly approved budget for FY 2017 has just over $48M in overall transit funding, with ABQ Ride itself getting a bit over $28M.

This level of subsidy is made relatively higher when combined with our low farebox recovery ratio compared to other cities. Here’s ABQ Ride’s ratios the past six years:

  • 2010: 12.3%
  • 2011: 14.6%
  • 2012: 15.4%
  • 2013: 16.0%
  • 2014: 14.1%
  • 2015: 12.6%

A review of other bus systems shows ABQ Ride’s to be historically lower than just about anywhere else. This fare policy study done for Colorado Springs in 2012 does a good job of explaining bus fares and recovery ratios for bus systems the size of Springs and Burque. Page 45 of the linked report comparing the following cities shows the following ratios:

  • Colorado Springs: 26.1% (projected after fare increase)
  • Spokane: 17.2%
  • Boise: 13.2%
  • Albuquerque: 12.6%
  • El Paso: 20.9%
  • Tucson: 20.8%
  • Bakersfield: 23.8%
  • Denver: 24.7%
  • Monterey, CA: 29.1%

One interesting component of both these figures and legislation pertaining to them is that, to a certain non-riding population, mere acknowledgement that such ratios exist is cause for foaming at the mouth and spittle-flying screams of “socialism!!!1!!1!” In fear of catching a face full of spittle, we don’t tend to talk much about farebox recovery and efforts to adjust ratios. It’s a bit of an underground practice, one that involves a fascinating set of monetary levers.

The lever causing ABQ Ride’s ratio to be so low is that it only cost $1 to ride the bus and $2 for a day pass. There are other factors, but the fare structure is, by far, the biggest one here. Councilor Benton’s resolution demands the ratio be doubled in the next seven, now six, years and contemplation on just how this doubling will occur brings up all kinds of socio-economic considerations.

As BB promised 5 to 5,000 posts on the subject, we’ll take a break for now and roll around a few of those many considerations next time.

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