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Could cheap UTA passes in Salt Lake City spread elsewhere?

Published October 15, 2013 12:28 pm

An annual pass good on TRAX, FrontRunner, buses and the Sugar House Streetcar is $360.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One big question emerges from the new pilot program to allow Salt Lake City residents to buy Utah Transit Authority annual passes for the equivalent of $30 a month instead of the normal $198: Why not just drop the cost of such passes for everyone, everywhere to try to increase ridership?

UTA General Manager Michael Allegra has an honest answer.

"I want to make sure there are no pitfalls," he said. "I'm shy of offering it everywhere when I'm not really sure I know what I'm doing."

Allegra said no other transit agency in the country has ever tried anything quite like this, and UTA is unsure how it will affect its fare-box revenues and overall costs. He says the one-year experiment in just Salt Lake City should help answer those questions without major risk.

"If it works, we certainly would consider making it applicable in other situations," Allegra says. "There's no reason we shouldn't do it" in other cities or even throughout the entire multi-county UTA district if the experiment works.

Last week, Salt Lake City and UTA announced they are teaming to allow capital residents to buy an annual pass — good on TRAX, FrontRunner, buses and the Sugar House Streetcar — for $360. Such passes cost others $198 a month, or $2,376 a year.

So Salt Lake City residents could save $2,0126 a year.

City officials tout it as a way to reduce air pollution. UTA hopes it will persuade more people to use mass transit, and that comes as a UTA Board committee this week endorsed a new goal to double ridership by 2020. That goes to the full UTA Board for consideration later this month, and such new pass programs could be a key to meeting that goal.

Subsidies • Allegra said UTA calculates, after a year of study, that its current tax subsidies per ride would remain exactly the same as if it can sell at least 6,500 of the new passes in Salt Lake City, and subsidies would drop after hitting that point.

Fares cover only a portion of the cost of rides. UTA figures this year it is spending $3.81 from sales-tax revenue to subsidize each ride beyond what fares cover. That varies greatly by type of ride. The subsidy so far this year is $1.34 per trip on TRAX, $4.59 by bus, $8.68 by FrontRunner and $27.33 for paratransit.

"As you know, we get monies out of our fare box," Allegra said.

"Our job is to get as much as we can out of them so we can put more service on the road" but not make them so high that they scare away customers.

So pricing the passes can be tricky. Andrea Packer, UTA communications director, said, for example, that the normal $198-a-month price tag for the unlimited-use pass for TRAX, bus and FrontRunner is that high because it is "specifically designed for the very frequent user, the commuter."

But Allegra said the UTA-Salt Lake City price tag on the annual pass for its residents is a mere $360 in part because it figures most city residents would be taking only short trips, and maybe not daily.

"There aren't a lot of people taking FrontRunner to [end-of-the-line station] Pleasant View from Salt Lake City," he said. "My gut says we'll get more short riders, which is a good thing."

Bulk sales • He said similar discounts have been offered to universities and businesses that buy passes for their employees or students. "The premise of those is the bulk," Allegra said. "You get a lot of people in the program and you spread the costs out equally" between short and long trips, and frequent and occasional use.

The promise of many pass holders taking only short trips is a major reason Salt Lake City was chosen for the experiment. The other, frankly, is that Salt Lake City proposed it to the UTA a year ago, Allegra said. "They are very supportive of transit. They are always talking about how we can do it better."

Allegra said several other cities are interested in offering the same program for their residents — if the experiment works in Salt Lake City. "They all are very intrigued. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from everywhere saying, 'How does this work? Does this make sense?' "

The move comes after UTA received some heat after a fare hike earlier this year, and The Salt Lake Tribune found its fares are among the highest in the nation — although UTA says they are comparable to systems most similar to it. Several groups that advocate for the poor urged UTA to cut fares.

Some other steps UTA and partners have taken to reduce some fares recently include offering 20 percent discounts for the next five months for people who use the new reloadable electronic FAREPAY cards, making University of Utah sports tickets good for UTA travel on game days and for months offering free fare to people who used smartphones to pay fares onboard.

Allegra adds that the Salt Lake City passes may help UTA gather data it needs as it moves toward a system that will charge fares depending on the length of trips, instead of the current flat fee for trips of any length.

UTA has said it needs to move to a cash-free system onboard to allow charging different fares based on length, adding that it crossed a major hurdle toward that in introducing the new FAREPAY cards.

Allegra said data collected by that system also will move toward the distance-based fares.