Seventy-five-year-old Frances Farley, who calls herself a "bus groupie," has been riding Sun Tran for more than a decade. Farley owns a car, but she takes the bus most of the time.
"I like it and think more people should ride it. The bus is more convenient," Farley says. "You don't have to worry about parking and the traffic in this town is horrendous. There is no reason why people shouldn't get on the bus."
Evelyn Rabin, a spry 83-year-old who has been riding the bus for the last four years, says Sun Tran allows her to avoid Tucson's terrible traffic. The bus system beats Van Tran, which Rabin complains is unreliable and slow.
Farley and Rabin are a minority in Tucson, where television ads remind us that "Life sucks without a car." Roughly 90 percent of all trips to work are taken by automobile, while only about 2 percent are by bus. Still, bus fans say the system has its advantages.
"They take wheelchairs and that's cool," says Lesly Ponzio, 45, who uses a motorized scooter because of MS. "The bus drivers are so helpful." The only problem, says Ponzio: "The times the buses run stink."
To assist the elderly or people in wheelchairs, a local social service agency, DIRECT, offers a free one-day "Transit Solutions" course twice a month. Participants learn to use the lift on the bus, how to buy passes and other Sun Tran procedures.
UA political science senior Sami Hamed, 22, who is legally blind, mentions another advantages for Sun Tran riders. "The system can be economical for riders and time-saving by allowing them to read along the way or even make phone calls," he says.
In general, Hamed rates the system as "adequate."
"It doesn't always meet all the needs but it gets the job done of getting from point A to point B," Hamed says. "The system is for the elderly, the disabled and the working poor. That's what people think it is for, and that's what it is."
Hamed says improving the system will require increased public investment.
"It needs to be managed like a business and the city needs to look at ways to attract more people through incentives such as passes to employees, serving new areas not served now and putting more money into it so the community can take pride in the system and enjoy it," he says.
Bus riders need to make adjustments; trips take longer and plans need to be made around the bus schedule. "People who go to school or work after 8 p.m. and ride the bus have problems," says Hamed, who also complains that some buses are dirty and some riders with mental problems disrupt fellow passengers.
Nancy Mattern, a 57-year-old who voluntarily gave up her car 18 months ago because of Tucson traffic hazards, also gripes about the schedule. She takes the bus everywhere she can, but can't schedule early morning medical appointments for fear of missing a bus transfer. She also has to sit in church for 40 minutes before mass because Sun Tran has infrequent service on Sunday. The weather can sometimes be a problem while waiting for a ride.
Lucile Zahrt, 72, says recent scheduling changes have created new problems. "I was so angry," she says. "They were false advertising. The council said they would be wonderful, the best thing for the city, but it was a lie."
Both Zahrt and Mattern object to losing the leg of the Route 8 bus, which once ran along Wilmot Road before going north to Tanque Verde Road. But at least they were able to save some service along Wilmot, where they live, after intense lobbying and submitting a petition with more than 100 signatures.
They criticize the way the Tucson City Council handled the recent changes. "The council doesn't care about us and has no clue what it's like for those of us who rely on the bus," says Mattern. "In this town, if you drive a car, own a business, have something to do with downtown or are working, then you count. But if you're unable to work because you're too young, or disabled, or have retired the council doesn't care. They froze funding for the bus system but didn't freeze how many people are in Tucson and want bus service."
Zahrt complains that council members never ride the bus and gripes that Mayor Bob Walkup, whom she calls a "nasty milquetoast," showed no leadership during the recent bus strike.
THE COUNCIL WILL soon receive recommendations from a recently created committee that has been reviewing Tucson's transportation options. The committee is expected to recommend the City ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to generate an estimated $40 million a year for transportation improvements.
Mattern, Zahrt and Ponzio all believe Sun Tran should get at least half of that money. But Mattern suspects public transit "will be lucky to get $10 million. I don't trust the council to give them the money they need."
In addition to looking at the sales tax, Mattern thinks the City needs to consider selling advertising on the side of buses, which could raise $350,000 annually. She'd like to see the roughly $400,000 now spent each year on the free downtown TICET shuttle used for the Sun Tran system instead.
"The bus is some people's bread and butter," says citizen committee member Frances Farley. "Sun Tran is a valuable entity and should get some attention."
Hamed, who also serves on the committee, predicts the group will recommend splitting the money between Sun Tran and improved street maintenance, along with urging the completion of construction projects like the Barraza-Aviation Parkway. But he wouldn't be surprised if the council disregards the recommendation, instead opting to spend more money on road projects while whittling down mass transit funding.
Hamed would like the committee to consider recommending a construction tax be levied in addition to the sales tax. Hamed conservatively estimates this fee, which would apply to all construction (and which, unlike traditional residential impact fees, could be used for any transportation need), would raise $20 million a year. Other committee members aren't crazy about the idea.
Hamed thinks the committee must offer diverse and multifaceted transportation solutions, including an option that is new, comprehensive and long-term. He's pushing for inclusion of a light-rail system as part of the sales tax package.
"If a system isn't working, like Sun Tran isn't, you look at something brand new, like light rail," he says. "It would be a great opportunity for the community which everyone can embrace because it is less polluting and causes less traffic congestion than buses."
"Get real," says Nancy Mattern. "Tucson is thinking about putting that kind of money into something that is going to minimally provide transportation to people and they won't put it into what is already here to allow it to expand at a whole lot less money? If you have one east-west rail line and one north-south, what the heck are the rest of the people in town [who ride mass transit] supposed to do?"
The benefits of increasing Sun Tran service may be lost on many automobile drivers, but it isn't on these bus riders.
"Just because most people drive doesn't mean bus service shouldn't be good," Ponzio says. "Drivers may never take the bus, but the system should be adequately funded and motorists shouldn't squabble about that."
"Because there are fewer cars on the road, those who don't drive benefit those who do," says Mattern.
Even if additional tax money is spent to increase the number and reach of Sun Tran's bus routes, would more people use the system? Mattern thinks the answer is yes. "There are people in this town who do not have cars," she says. "They would ride the bus if the service was out there [on the east and north sides]. Lots of people don't ride the bus now because the routes don't get them where they need to be when they need to be there." With more funding and more routes, she believes, more people will board a bus.
Zahrt disagrees. "People wouldn't get out of their cars," she says. "They're spoiled."
But she thinks that Sun Tran must be improved. "Any city this big should have adequate transportation," she says. "Why don't we act like a big city?"
"We are a big city now," says Mattern. "We aren't the Old Pueblo any more."