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Let's make a deal: UTA, SLC bargaining over free buses

Published May 27, 2012 9:44 pm

Transit • Agency wants to scrap no-fee downtown service, but city must get something in return.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you had to trade away free-fare bus service downtown, what could you get in return?

How about direct TRAX service from downtown to the University of Utah?

Better yet, a direct light-rail route from the soon-to-be-opened North Temple line from Salt Lake City International Airport to the U.

And where is that low-fare circulator bus system for downtown that was promised in 2008 under an agreement between Salt Lake City and the Utah Transit Authority?

Those are some of the transportation items the City Council is pondering after UTA officials, citing high costs, recently formalized their request to dump downtown's free-fare bus service.

UTA General Manager Mike Allegra told the council his agency wants to halt the service Aug. 19.

"Free-fare zones made sense back then," he said of the 1996 contract between the city and the transit agency to provide free transit downtown for 100 years. "But it doesn't work for us any more. We're struggling with the revenue side and people who [board in free-fare zones for outbound destinations and] get off the bus with no interest in paying."

UTA estimates it's losing $100,000 a year on free-fare buses downtown and about $900,000 a year on free light rail in the zone. But eliminating free TRAX service between 225 East and 600 West from South Temple to 500 South is not on the table ­— for now.

Nonetheless, the city is legally bound to get value in return for allowing UTA to cancel the free-fare buses, according to a memorandum from the City Attorney's Office.

Council Chairman Soren Simonsen supports eliminating the free-fare buses downtown. Instead, he and others favor a distance-based fare system. Presently, passengers outside the zone must pay UTA's one-way fare of $2.35 — whether they're riding six blocks or 16 miles.

"Those of us riding the bus in Sugar House," Simonsen argued, "are subsidizing the free-fare zone."

But UTA's plan to switch to distance-based fares is still two years away.

Simonsen invited city officials to get out their wish lists for transit amenities in exchange for eliminating free-fare bus service downtown.

But Councilman Luke Garrott isn't on board. Rather than eliminating it, he wants the bus free-fare zone expanded. "Getting rid of the free-fare zone downtown, whether for buses or trains, will decrease ridership," he said. "I'm not interested in dealing."

Garrott faulted UTA for cutbacks in bus service on various Salt Lake City routes. He also told transit officials last week that they are keeping down ridership with high fares.

The two-term councilman chided UTA for not following through on the promise of a downtown circulator system. "We don't have a bus shuttle service downtown, and I'm disappointed."

Freshman Councilman Kyle LaMalfa also isn't quite sold that relinquishing free-fare buses is a wise move.

"There are a lot of people downtown who use the free-fare zone," he said of residents who need transportation to get to the grocery store, work and other locations. "It's not just an asset, it's valuable to people."

Still, LaMalfa hinted that he may be willing to compromise. For example, he would like an expanded free-fare TRAX zone to the 900 South and Ballpark stations — stops he said go underused. And, he added, a direct route from the airport to the U. "is something we've looked forward to for years."

As now planned, TRAX riders boarding at the airport would have to transfer at downtown's Courthouse Station, 450 S. Main, to get to the U.

The downtown business community would surrender free-fare buses, according to Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, if UTA would push to the front burner items that enhance "connectivity."

At the top of that list is a direct TRAX route from the heart of downtown to the U., which UTA canceled last year to save money. Presently, to get from, say, the new City Creek Center to the college, riders must transfer at the Courthouse Station.

"That's been a source of frustration for downtown businesses and residents," Mathis said. "We want greater connectivity."

The success of downtown — and its shopping, cultural and business centers — depends on convenient mass transit, said Councilman Carlton Christensen.

He is willing to give up free-fare buses but would like to see a low-fare circulator bus system downtown.

"Right now, there is nothing to take you around the periphery of downtown," he said. "With a loop, downtown is a livable place. Without a loop, it's problematic."

The council has scheduled a June 12 public hearing on the issue. If an agreement cannot be reached by UTA's Aug. 19 target date, free-fare bus service would remain downtown until at least February 2013.

csmart@sltrib.com

What's next

P A June 12 public hearing will give residents a chance to sound off to the Salt Lake City Council on whether to allow the Utah Transit Authority to eliminate free-fare bus service downtown.