When the Utah Transit Authority partnered with Park City and Summit County governments to start a bus route connecting the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Back, some transit watchers were skeptical.
Some said Summit County residents who work in the Salt Lake Valley wouldn't leave their cars behind and take the bus instead. Others said valley residents who work at the ski resorts on the east side of the mountains wouldn't pay the pricey bus fare. But it seems the skeptics were wrong. Or, more accurately, lower bus fares have tempered the skepticism.
Ridership on the route has increased an average of 1,000 a month since the partners agreed to reduce fares substantially. And the increase happened despite a reduction in the number of bus trips between Salt Lake City and Park City from 14 to 10 a day.
When it opened in October 2011, the route cost riders a hefty $5.50 a trip. Since the fare per-trip dropped to $4.25 last fall, and since UTA decided to include free transfers into its TRAX and bus system for those who ride down the canyon from Park City, buses have carried more riders every month compared to the previous year.
That's good news for everyone who drives Interstate 80 between the capital and resorts and for all the people who live in or drive in those places. Fewer cars mean less air pollution, and breathability is growing ever more important on both sides of the Wasatch range. Reducing the growing number of vehicles on I-80 also could translate into fewer expensive road repairs. And, as the Utah Department of Transportation might attest, that is important at a time when Utah faces a list of highway projects that far outpaces the available revenue.
But the significance of this story goes beyond its happy ending. Lower fares had a direct effect on the success of the Park-City-to-Salt Lake route, along with sensible adjustments to frequency and scheduling. The boost in ridership should send a message to UTA: Reasonable fares are key to attracting more riders.
The agency now is operating as if its only option for increasing revenue is to continually raise fares; Utah now is one of the most expensive transit systems for riders in the country. Unless they have a subsidized pass, many Utahns opt for the more convenient and sometimes cheaper one-car-one-driver transportation model.
That is counterproductive if the goal is, as it should be, to get people out of their cars by making transit an appealing alternative that is also affordable for low-income Utahns.