Cover Stories

On the Struggle Bus

Plans to fix Santa Fe’s broken bus system appear to be going nowhere

Riding public transit in Santa Fe can mean waiting for a bus that never shows up.

That’s what happened to Brenda Tenorio the other week.

The Southside resident waited patiently on a bench in the parking lot outside Santa Fe Place Mall to catch a ride but was unaware—until a driver told her—that the route she needed to take wasn’t running on a regular schedule.

“I missed my appointment,” she tells SFR, as she waited for another bus Monday morning.

It’s easy to understand how she missed her ride. Santa Fe Trails, the city’s bus service, has not posted any information at the mall “transit hub”—or any other major bus stops around town—about route schedules or cancellations. There aren’t even maps to tell riders where the city’s buses travel. Signs on the city’s bus stops direct riders to a website, But it is just a blank webpage.

If you manage to find a bus schedule, the picture is pretty bleak: Five of the city’s 10 bus routes are no longer running regular service but instead have transitioned to on-demand.

That means there is no regular Santa Fe Trails bus service to some of the city’s biggest employers and institutions, such as Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, Santa Fe Community College, Museum Hill, the Institute for American Indian Arts or St. John’s College.

“They need to get the routes back up, more often and later,” Tenorio says, arguing the city should run buses more frequently and later into the evening, otherwise riders are simply stranded.

To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic upended public transit systems around the world. Timetables built around the finely tuned rhythms of commuters fell apart as many began working from home and schools closed. Tourism slowed and many transit systems cut back to providing only basic service while transit workers faced deadly risks on the job.

A regional bus system in Northern New Mexico and the Rail Runner both cut back service, but Santa Fe was supposed to have a plan.

Just last year, Mayor Alan Webber and the City Council adopted a multimodal transition plan—the result of thousands of surveys as well as extensive study by outside consultants.

The plan called for a series of changes to Santa Fe’s bus system, some ambitious but others long overdue.

In the short term, those plans included restoring regular service on two routes to better serve the Midtown and South Capitol neighborhoods; extending service on Saturdays across the city; and improving the bus system’s website and bus stops to provide riders with better information.

To date, the city has not completed a single one of those goals.

Meanwhile, the Transit Advisory Board—the appointed group meant to oversee Santa Fe’s bus system—has not met in years.

“I don’t think the bus service is as good as it needs to be but I don’t think it’s not important,” says Mayor Alan Webber, who worked extensively on transit issues before he was elected to lead the city in 2018.

Webber tells SFR the city has been hamstrung in implementing its new plan due to a a vacancy in the leadership of Santa Fe Trails.

City officials also cite staffing among the transit system’s rank-and-file. Public Works Director Regina Wheeler told councilors at a budget hearing last month that 30 of about 50 bus driver positions are unfilled.

“We’re down to our core crew of people,” Thomas Martinez, director of operations and maintenance for Santa Fe Trails, said at the same hearing.

But the union representing drivers says the city simply isn’t paying as much as bus operators with commercial drivers licenses can earn elsewhere. And the city isn’t offering the sort of incentives touted by Albuquerque, which is advertising bonuses of up to $2,500 for new drivers.

It’s easy to dismiss transit in Santa Fe as a lost cause given that the city, outside its old historic core, was designed largely around the private automobile and that denser development is met with protests from many residents.

Still, the city needs more residents and visitors alike to ride the bus.

Transportation remains the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Fe, according to a report from city officials on 2021 data.

The same report said encouraging public transportation and improving infrastructure to make the city more walkable and bikeable have some of the greatest potential for reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

While more zero-emission electric vehicles are hitting the road, including in some city departments, they won’t unsnarl Santa Fe traffic or help local residents who are too young or too old to drive. Meanwhile, the cost of owning a vehicle continues to increase and the share of households behind on auto loans has risen.

Riding the city’s buses this spring, this writer has seen glimmers of a Santa Fe that isn’t so easily dismissed as one only navigable by car. Yes, there have been times I’ve had a bus stop all to myself at rush hour. But I’ve also ridden buses crowded with students headed to class and helped tourists navigate a bus system that can still get them to much of what they want to see.

For many, a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented Santa Fe already exists—because it has to.

Some pending improvements could make Santa Fe’s bus system a more enticing alternative for residents and visitors alike. The city is moving ahead with designs for renovating the currently neglected and unaccommodating downtown transit center on Sheridan Street. City officials also have plans to build a transit hub on the Southside at Cerrillos Road and Camino Entrada.

A yawning gap remains between the role that city officials have assigned to public transportation in helping create a cleaner, more equitable Santa Fe and the bus network, which provides poor service to swathes of the community that most need it, while doing little to entice new riders.

Santa Fe’s transit system is relatively young given the age of the city.

Created only in 1991 when voters approved a gross receipts tax to fund it, buses didn’t start rolling until 1992. Today, it’s an enterprise fund within the city’s budget, which means it’s meant to pay for itself. While the system receives gross receipts tax revenue, it also receives substantial federal funding. And while other cities have scrapped transit fares altogether, Santa Fe is still charging a buck a ride—though students and veterans ride free and other discounts are available. Santa Fe Trails has never been a money maker for the city, though, and was never meant to be.

Some of the same problems that plagued the rollout of the system, still confound it today.

Some city officials argued in the early 1990s that the system concentrated service on the north end of town while neglecting the south side. That’s an issue still reflected in recent rider surveys and in mounds of economic data that show the highest concentrations of people who rely on public transit are in Midtown and on the Southside, where residents often face longer walks to bus stops and limited service.

Even though regular service has been suspended on half of Santa Fe’s bus routes, city officials argue the system that has replaced it is actually a pretty good deal.

Known as on-demand service, it works like this: Instead of going to a bus stop at a time listed on a bus schedule, you go to the bus stop and dial a phone number to ask a bus pick you up.

“On-demand is actually more accessible,” Martinez, the head of Santa Fe Trails, told councilors during a hearing last month.

This type of system works on riders’ schedules, he argued.

And Webber says this kind of service offers a glimpse at the future of public transit, one focused on the mobility of individual passengers rather than just bus routes.

“We need to focus on providing mobility, rather than only seeing our challenge as better bus service,” Webber says.

The system has also required riders to spend a lot of time waiting for a ride on sometimes empty buses. And the city’s multimodal transition plan notes that this service relies on riders having a phone, which some don’t.

Transit experts also say there’s a big limitation to this type of system. By its nature, on-demand service can only serve a fraction of the riders that could be served by a bus route running on regularly scheduled intervals.

Many bus systems have moved to this sort of “demand response” service, allowing transit agencies to reach riders in areas where there might not be enough passengers to justify running buses on a fixed schedule.

“Demand response is just another way of getting more service into more places,” says Jarrett Walker, a consultant to public transit agencies who authors the blog

Walker tells SFR that this kind of service has “extremely low maximum productivity,” adding later, “it cannot handle more than five, six, seven people per hour.”

In fact, there’s a sort of paradox to this service.

If the city truly encouraged more people to ride the bus, the system could be overwhelmed by too many calls for service.

So, it works “as long as everyone involved is clear that this only works because not many people are using it,” Walker says.

The multimodal transition plan approved last year calls for replacing regular bus service entirely with a sort of on-demand service in the Museum Hill and community college areas in the future and extending an on-demand bus service to the airport.

Yet the plan doesn’t entirely dismiss the idea of regular bus service. It calls for: more frequent bus service on routes 24 and 26, which serve the Southside, including the future teen center and Presbyterian’s new facility off Cerrillos Road; increasing the frequency of service on some routes during Saturday as well as extending the hours on several routes to 10 pm.; and restoring regular schedules along route 5 and an amended route 6, which would ensure there’s bus regular to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, the state capitol and along Rodeo Road.

The shortage of drivers has extended to the city’s paratransit service, Santa Fe Ride, which provides a door-to-door taxi-like service for people with disabilities.

It can be a lifeline, but over the years she has used it, Mary McGinnis has seen the service change. Rides aren’t available as late in the evening as they once were. And passengers should arrange trips well in advance, she says.

“Drivers are working so much overtime,” says McGinnis, who previously served on the city’s Transit Advisory Board.

The drivers who remain are competent and helpful, she says, but there aren’t enough of them

“We’ve adjusted to it because what else can we do?” McGinnis says.

Getting more buses on regular routes will take more drivers, however.

The union representing city employees—including bus drivers—says officials haven’t made transit a priority, a point they argue is reflected in the pay the city offers new hires.

Wages on job postings for bus drivers range from a high end of about $24 an hour to as little as $15 an hour.

“These are skilled workers,” says Louis Demella, vice president of AFSCME Local 3999. “If they don’t want to work for the City of Santa Fe at $18 an hour, they can go get a job today as a trucker at $27 an hour.”

The city’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year calls for a 3% raise for employees earning less than $100,000 per year, but Demella argues that doesn’t keep up with inflation.

And while the city has handed out incentives such as recruitment stipends to police officers, it hasn’t extended similar deals to entice more bus drivers even as other cities in New Mexico offer perks to attract new employees to their transit systems. Some are even considering how to provide housing for drivers to work in some of the state’s more expensive resort communities where bus service is key to service workers who sometimes face long commutes.

To Demella, this says city leaders just don’t care about bus service or the people who depend on it.

“This is not just limited to our transit division. This is impacting services across the city of Santa Fe. If they don’t impact people that Alan Webber considers his constituency, they get left to the wayside,” Demella says.

Several city bus routes stream through the transit center on Sheridan Street, along with buses from other transit services, yet not a single timetable or map anywhere at the station tells riders when buses are arriving or where those buses are going.

The downtown transit center sits in the heart of the city’s tourist district, wedged between popular museums and just a block from the Plaza, but first-time riders interested in hopping on a bus are on their own in figuring it out. Those turning to Google or Apple Maps may end up waiting a long time—the information on those apps is out of date and doesn’t reflect cuts in bus service over the last few years. The city provides up-to-date information on the app RouteShout, but it can be slow and less intuitive. Moreover, the city doesn’t advertise this app at its bus stops. (Webber says the city is working on improving the Santa Fe Trails website. )

The lack of information provided by the bus system was one of the most common complaints among riders surveyed as part of the city’s multimodal transition plan (other top complaints included infrequent bus service and the poor condition of bus stops).

The only nod to informing riders at the transit hub comes from the North Central Regional Transit District, which runs several intercity bus routes with stops around Santa Fe—including at Sheridan Street.

The district has installed a tablet-sized computer display at its bus stop there, telling riders in real time about the schedules of buses arriving at the hub.

It’s all part of an effort to make the district’s bus routes a more attractive alternative to driving while also better serving longtime riders.

“If your riders can’t get where they want to go when they want to get there, they’re not going to ride your service,” says Anthony Mortillaro, executive director of the NCRTD.

The district, like Santa Fe, has cut back its routes over the last few years and Mortillaro says hiring remains a struggle.

But the district has also seen some routes come bouncing back from the lows of the pandemic, too. For example, it has increased the frequency on the route from Santa Fe to Eldorado.

And the district runs a bus service from South Capitol Station through downtown up to Ski Santa Fe. During this last snowy winter, that route saw ridership surpass pre-pandemic levels at times, a reminder that even amid the car culture of Northern New Mexico, plenty of people are still looking for alternatives to driving—at least for some trips.

Passengers riding the full route save themselves an 18-mile drive each way and cut down on congestion along a road that can be tricky driving in the winter.

The district has some big plans, too.

On a recent visit and tour of its new maintenance facility in Española, Mortillaro outlines plans to electrify the system’s bus fleet. That will start next year with buses serving outlying communities, like Taos, where the district has been working on deals with local electric coops to get a decent price on energy.

Santa Fe’s multimodal transition plan dismisses the idea of electrifying the city’s bus fleet, ruling that it’s too expensive at this point. And Santa Fe’s buses already operate entirely on compressed natural gas—which, while still a fossil fuel, leads to fewer emissions from the fleet’s tailpipes. Still, city officials say the buses are meant to last about 14 years and about a half-dozen buses in the fleet are just past that age.

The Biden administration has prioritized pumping money into transit systems that want to electrify their fleets.

Mortillaro says now is the time to move.

“If you’re not out there applying to these programs, you’re going to miss out,” he says.

Meanwhile, the district’s long-term plan calls for running buses as frequently as every 15 minutes between Santa Fe and Española.

Walking around the district’s shiny new maintenance facility and glancing at the buses refashioned with sleek new livery provides an alternative view of how transit’s recovery from the pandemic might have played out for Santa Fe.

The district started operating in 2007, with gross receipts tax revenue from across Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Taos counties that fund rural and intercity transit services and help the state pay for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express trains.

In the ensuing 15 years, the district has gone on to take over the bus services in Taos and Española as well as stretch routes out to Farmington, Mora and Las Vegas. And the district provides some of the funding for Santa Fe’s city bus service.

About five years ago, the city and the district studied the possibility of the NCRTD taking over Santa Fe’s bus service altogether.

Negotiations fell apart amid a host of unresolved questions about whether each side would really be better off. And some city councilors say Santa Fe is still best served by having its own bus system, with the responsiveness and flexibility that can come with that.

But if you’ve ever tried to figure out what time a bus might arrive at your bus stop, you may not be so sure.

Mortillaro adds that the district has a good working relationship with Santa Fe Trails. But he argues the district benefits from being able to focus on one thing—transit—rather than running a host of other services, the way a city does.

“I think it still is worth revisiting,” he says.


The mayor and council approved a multimodal transition plan last year that sets a long list of goals for the city’s bus system.


  • Return Route 5 and Route 6 with Streamlined Route 6
  • Expand Saturday service
  • Restore the Historic District Shuttle
  • Drop the first Route 2 weekday run
  • Establish new bus stops as needed for revised new routes
  • Continue bus stop improvement program
  • Obtain app-based software
  • Implement Southwest and Museum Hill Microtransit Services
  • Revise Santa Fe Ride application and travel training programs, review dispatching and service costs
  • Implement marketing and public information improvements
  • Continue development of the Southside Transit Hub
  • Implement improvements to the Downtown Transit Center
  • Conduct a study for location and programming of Midtown Transit Hub
  • Conduct a study of Transit Signal Priority on the Cerrillos Road corridor
  • Purchase 12 paratransit vehicles and 3 cutaway vehicles


  • Implement revisions to Routes 1 and 4 to serve Midtown
  • Add service to the airport by modifying Route 26
  • Continue bus stop improvement program
  • Continue marketing/public information program
  • Open Southside Transit Hub and shift routes
  • Depending on rate of development, implement Tierra Contenta and Las Soleras Service
  • Conduct a study to expand microtransit service, based on implemented services
  • Develop funding and detailed engineering plans for implementation of Transit Signal Priority
  • Prepare plans for Midtown Transit Hub and obtain funding
  • Purchase 8 heavy duty buses


  • Implement Transit Signal Priority
  • Construct Midtown Transit Hub
  • Continue bus stop improvement program
  • Continue marketing/public information program
  • Purchase 1 heavy duty bus


  • Continue bus stop improvement program
  • Continue marketing/public information program
  • Purchase 1 cutaway vehicle


  • Continue bus stop improvement program
  • Continue marketing/public information program
Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.