Only a handful of people attended a public hearing Thursday to question the Utah Transit Authority's proposal to drop its free-fare zone for buses in downtown Salt Lake City.
UTA staff outnumbered residents at the open house-style hearing, where residents could look at information placards, ask questions and leave comments. During the first hour, only nine residents attended.
In contrast, 45 people gave comments on Tuesday through a half-hour "Twitter Chat" on the issue, and their comments went to 30,608 people who follow them and the UTA on Twitter, said UTA spokesman Marc Bowman. Most of them opposed dropping the free buses.
Opinion was split Tuesday among the few people who attended.
"It's horrible. I am really opposed" to dropping it, said Martha Wunderli. She said she works downtown, and uses free buses to go to meetings throughout the area because parking is expensive. "You need this if you want to attract people downtown."
Michael Ferrin, of Salt Lake City, said, "It's going to hurt the people who need it the most the homeless and the poor."
But Mark Christensen said he has found that many people who have been on buses with him in the free-fare zone "were riding the bus without going anywhere in particular. They were just trying to stay warm." He said some were intoxicated or mentally challenged, and would fight with bus drivers.
Christensen said he came to the hearing mostly to seek information about UTA plans to move to a distance-based fare system. Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, complained that removing the free-fare zone is part of that overall new fare plan and UTA should discuss the whole plan and not pieces.
"People's opinions about the parts might be different if they knew what the complete plan was going to look like," he said.
For example, he noted that plans also call for elimination of reduced-rate or unlimited-use passes. "UTA states that 35 percent of traffic going to the University of Utah goes there on TRAX. How many of those university students will use TRAX if they have to pay each time they board instead of getting an annual pass when they pay for tuition?" he asked.
Karen Silver brought a statement on behalf of the Salt Lake Community Action Program. It said, "UTA should live up to the terms of the 100-year contract with Salt Lake City, which includes having a free-fare zone." Another 85 years remain on that contract.