On The Bus

What a long, strange trip it is on SunTran. Is it time you took the ride?

The bus should have been here two minutes ago. I hope I'm not late.

I would check the bus schedule, but I'm sitting on it. It's 2 o'clock on a mid-May afternoon, and I'm sure if not for the half-inch of paper insulation I would fry like a corn tortilla on the concrete oven of a bus stop at Prince and Campbell. The schedule is out of date anyway. Leaning forward to shade my face, I study a melting snow-cone at my feet. A couple of minutes ago a teen-ager had stuffed it under the bench as I rounded the corner. Trashcans are noticeably absent from the bus stops. It smelled like a dumpster. Why was I riding the bus in Tucson anyway?

I first rode the bus in Tucson on a crisp morning two days ago. At 10 a.m., the beautiful, open-air Tohono Tadai Transit Center was nearly empty. The $4.2-million, three-and-a-half-acre open-air bus terminal was built in 1994 with a central theme, "Urban Grid meets River and Mountains." Among the blue, tan and purple-tinted paving, a giant horned lizard sculpture meets face-to-shovel with a colorfully tiled bulldozer. Nearby, shadowed by a stack of multilingual building blocks, a slack-jawed ceramic desert tortoise teeters on the brink of extinction.

In the center of the terminal sits a spacious information booth. There were no schedules available. "How do I get downtown?" I asked the woman behind the safety glass. Martina has beenworking here almost 10 years, yet she still manages to be courteous in the face of dumb questions from first-timers. She smiles and says, "We have a 6, 19, 10 and 16 that goes downtown." After a polite pause, she pointed me in the right direction, "There's a 16 leaving for downtown right there. Pay one dollar on the bus, and don't forget to ask for a transfer."

That afternoon I made it downtown on a buck and two buses. I did some shopping and had lunch at a new restaurant. This wasn't as bad as I thought. Still, my maiden voyage taught me some hard lessons. Buy the $2 Day Pass to make it back home, don't carry too many shopping bags and avoid eating beans if you are riding the bus.

The next day I tried to catch the morning commute. I arrived at the station at 8 a.m. No new bus schedules were available. The 15 east to Campbell was empty except for me and the driver. We passed deserted,inconspicuous bus stops. As rush-hour traffic whizzed by, it was apparent that the buses were not very popular in Tucson. But it dawned on me that it might not be the riders who lack the enthusiasm.

Under the Clean Air Act, Arizona's State Implementation Plan requires that the city of Tucson maintain a high level of ridership on public transportation. In 1995 the city entered into a settlement agreement that established a benchmark of 199 buses in service, which would maintain a yearly ridership of at least 7 percent of the total population. Since then SunTran, Tucson's privately-run but heavily-subsidized city bus system, has struggled to meet these standards. But instead of adopting a campaign to increase ridership, SunTran has focused on cutting costs by reducing its fleet of buses and increasing fares. In 2001, at the same time the settlement agreement formally ended, SunTran purchased 45 new compressed natural gas buses, which run cleaner and cheaper than their diesel-fueled counterparts. Through a "streamlining" program to increase efficiency, an equal number of active buses were then cut, according to SunTran, keeping only 157 buses active. New bus purchases are funded through SunTran's capital budget, 80 percent of which comes from the Federal Transit Authority. Its daily operating budget is funded primarily by the city of Tucson. SunTran seems to have enough money to buy buses, just not enough to run them. At the same time, SunTran increased bus fares and constricted schedules. The result, say critics, was a reduction in potential riders, and the first to feel its effects were those for whom the bus was the only option.

Heading South Down Campbell, we began picking up more passengers. The first was Manuel. Ever since his automobile accident two months ago, Manuel has been riding the 15 every day between his apartment and University Medical Center. He can't drive since he is on medication. Though the bus gets him where he needs to go, he says the routes don't always go where he wants to go. That's a big difference between those who ride the bus out of necessity and those who do so by choice.

Cecilia Greenhalgh also rides the 15 south. "My car broke down two years ago and I gave it away to charity," she said. "I really don't look forward to ever owning a car. I love the bus system." Still, riding the bus is a sacrifice for her.

She had to turn down a good job because her shift would have ended at 2 a.m. "The restricted bus hours make it impossible for people with early or late jobs to use public transportation," she said, adding, "I definitely think we need a bus running on Ina and Thornydale on Sundays, mostly for the people who work jobs out there." She was also worried that the weekend schedule will eventually be dropped because of budget problems.

The City's latest transportation plan seemed doomed from the start: a half-cent sales tax that no self-respecting conservative would pay to build a bunch of overpasses no card-carrying liberal would be caught dead under. Even if the plan had passed, the city would have barely improved SunTran's current level of service over the next 10 years.

It seemed to be a no-win situation for the bus system. Now that the plan has been rejected, the future of public transportation seems uncertain.

There is certainly no shortage of potential customers. You just have to know where to look. I transferred from the 15 at Grant and Campbell, where two head-phoned teen-agers, ages 16 and 17, waited for the Number 9 East. They say that this bus is standing-room-only for kids going to Catalina High and commuters in the morning and afternoon. This morning they had to wait for a second bus. "Is this bus usually on time?" I asked. They laughed, "No, the buses are usually never on time." The 9 pulled up and they tried to board, eventually stepping off, dejected. Their passes had expired, leaving them to find another way to school.

I got off at Craycroft and Grant, where Christie Schmidt held an umbrella to shield the noon sun while she waited for the 34 South. In Schmidt's view, many of the problems plaguing the bus system stem from poor management and lack of maintenance. Schmidt has been riding the bus for nearly 18 years. She takes the bus to and from work, and sometimes around town to save gas money. The buses, she said, are dirty and in need of repair. "They've cut a lot of routes in the last few years. Drivers are stressed out trying to make the new schedules, and they get more and more behind as the week goes on." She has written letters to the city. "[A city official] told me that if we didn't pass Proposition 400, it was only going to get worse. ... I thought that was very offensive." She credited drivers for making the situation bearable. "Sometimes riders get angry because of the schedules. I think [the drivers] have a job as tough as that of a police officer, and they handle it really well."

"I am utterly appalled at how people could talk about freeways while neglecting public transit," says local activist Steve Farley. "SunTran has no marketing budget. They make it as difficult as possible for people to use the bus effectively. The city wants to make public transit a ghetto. That's how you divide a community." After two days of riding the bus, I couldn't agree more.

Back at my last stop today, it's nearly 100 degrees. The snow-cone at my feet melted and evaporated long ago, with no bus in sight. I imagine myself sitting in my air-conditioned car, listening to NPR. But when the bus finally arrives, I am grateful for the instant cool and comfort as I take my seat. My mind wanders, and I recall the people I met while hopping buses in the last two days. John was a retired veteran concerned about racial tension on the south side. Bradley was leaving Tucson for L.A. to start a better life after 25 years. He carried all his possessions in two small suitcases and some plastic bags. Christie Schmidt had met her future husband on the bus.

There's no doubt that socially, economically and environmentally society would benefit if more of us were getting "on the bus." Will we give our cars to charity and make a radical lifestyle change? Probably not. Perhaps even less likely is the success of another master plan to solve the city's transportation problems. But perhaps the time will come when a critical mass of awareness, experience and leadership will shape a public transportation system that works.

I just got on the bus two days ago. I hope I'm not too late.

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