The Utah Transit Authority's plan to make its fares more fair by switching to a distance-based system makes sense. But another element of the proposal under consideration dropping all discounted passes likely would reduce ridership, cause parking headaches for discount sponsors and worsen the air pollution along the Wasatch Front.
The big winners in switching to a fare system based on how far they ride, of course, would be those who use TRAX or buses to commute to work and live near their workplace. The big losers under the no-pass proposal would be students and employees at the University of Utah, Utah Valley University, and Weber State University, whose passes are subsidized both by those institutions and by UTA.
Others who would feel a sharp pinch are employees of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the businesses it owns and people who work for Utah state and Salt Lake City governments, federal agencies and several big financial and retail businesses.
But the UTA proposal, an attempt to increase fare revenues, might lead many riders who now use discount passes to quit using mass transit altogether. Since about $2 of every $3 in fare revenue comes from discounted riders, decreasing their numbers would be counterproductive. Many university students, in particular, simply would not be able to afford to ride TRAX trains or buses under the new system and would instead decide to drive to school.
The three universities that offer discount passes have not included many more parking lots in their long-range campus planning largely because transit ridership has reduced the need. Students, staff and faculty members driving cars to campus, and endlessly circling existing parking areas, waiting for a rare open space, would do no good for the Wasatch Front air, which already is a health hazard on too many days.
A UTA-commissioned study recommends providing riders with pre-paid "tap-on, tap-off" electronic cards that would calculate a distance-based fare using Global Positioning System technology. The study says the cards could be programmed for student discounts. The transit agency should put that in the plan.
University students, already faced with staggering levels of student-loan debt and ever-rising tuition costs, treasure the UTA discount passes as one of the few government-sponsored benefits that help them finance their education.
Any revised fare system should retain student discounts in some form.