It's not a question of if Albuquerque's bus fares will have to at least double, but of when they will.
By city law, the basic $1 bus fare will have to increase dramatically between now and 2022.
Because in 2015, the City Council passed a resolution (read it here) that says the transit system will have to get at least 25 percent of its operating expenses from fares by 2020. Right now, ABQ Ride is getting 9 percent of its $48.1 million operating expenses from fares, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That comes out to $4.3 million in fares.
Where does all that other money to operate the bus system come from? Well, $40.7 million, or 84 percent, comes from us the taxpayers.
That 9 percent of its operating expenses that ABQ Ride gets from fares is called the Farebox Recovery Ratio, and Albuquerque's FRR is one of the lowest in the nation.
Denver has an FRR of 25.9 percent, while Phoenix, which isn't exactly known as a mecca of public transportation, has an FRR of 19.1 percent. In Chicago it's 42.1 percent, and in New York it's 40.9 percent.
Here's the problem that Mayor Tim Keller and the city councilors will have to deal with in trying to raise the city's FRR to the mandated 25 percent. The bus system's ridership is down 25 percent since 2012, and raising fares will only – it usually does – cause that ridership to fall further.
Fewer riders on a system of fixed routes and fixed expenses means that revenue from fares, and thus the FRR, will drop off even further. It will mean that the tiny amount that fares contribute to the bus system's operating expenses will become even tinier.
Now, the bus system does have a bit of an out in trying to raise the FRR. The resolution that was passed, and signed by then-Mayor Richard Berry, allows for advertising income to be counted toward the FRR.
But the bottom line is that unless the council changes the resolution, or rescinds it, bus fares will have to rise. And the intent of the measure was to increase fares gradually so as not to shock people with a massive increase all at once. So we might have to start that Keller and the councilors start raising fares. After all, we wouldn't wan them to violate city law.
The resolution to raise bus fares was sponsored by Councilor Isaac Benton, with councilors Rey Garduno. Brad Winter, Klarissa Pena, Diane Gibson and Trudy Jones voting in favor. Ken Sanchez voted against it two councilors were excused from the June 22, 2015 meeting in which it was approved.
Are those buses really empty?
You hear a lot of people say that every time they see a bus on a city street it's nearly empty. Maybe on some routes, like the San Pedro commuter, which runs in the mornings and afternoons, and which, in the year that ended June 30, 2016, had a massive 4,366 total boardings. That's not for a week, but for the entire year!
One measure of a transit system's effectiveness and efficiency is the number of trips per vehicle revenue hour. In other words, how many people get on the bus, or light rail car, for every hour it's in service? By that measure, Albuquerque isn't that bad. On average, 25.9 people get on the buses here every hour they're operating.
But that number is a bit skewed because it includes Demand Response vehicles, which are those little vans that go around and pick people up at their houses. When just considering the city's fixed route buses, the trips per vehicle hour average 32.5.
In Denver, the average trips per vehicle hour are 25.9; in Chicago, 54; in Phoenix 25.2, in New York, 97.7; and in Oklahoma City, 14.6.
Here's another measure of efficiency: operating costs per passenger trip. In other words, how much does it cost to haul one person around?
It Albuquerque, it's $3.63; in Chicago, $2.59; in Denver, $4.58; in Phoenix, $4; in New York, $2.63; and in Salt Lake City, $5.08.
(If you want to lose yourself in ABQ Ride stats, click here.)
If you think that ABQ Ride is bad in terms of its efficiency measures, close your eyes when it comes to the Rail Runner Express commuter rain. It's kind of a train wreck. The Rail Runner has an FRR of 8.8 percent, an operating cost of $25.75 per passenger trip, and a tiny 15 trips per passenger vehicle mile.