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Ingwell: Overpricing mass transit
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

The Utah Transit Authority has raised its base fares to $2.50, a 6.4 percent increase from their current $2.35. Which raises this question for UTA and our elected officials: How does this increase encourage us to drive less to cut down on air pollution in our valley?

We were hammered hard last winter with 22 red-air days. The governor's office had a solution, put up on Gov. Gary Herbert's Facebook Page: "Individuals can have a significant impact on air quality — 57 percent of emissions come from tailpipes. ALL Utahns need to DO SOMETHING: Drive less. Take the train. Conserve energy. Don't idle. Everyone has a responsibility to improve the air quality."

If our government representatives want us to drive less to improve air quality, why aren't they working with UTA to lower base fares instead of raising them? Is taking public transit even worth it? Let's consider a cost/benefit analysis. Before I start, though, a disclaimer. I'm not factoring in oil changes, tires and maintenance. I just don't think those future costs play much of a role in our daily decisions.

So, let's consider a person with a 10-mile commute from Bountiful to downtown Salt Lake City. A gallon of gas costs $3.50, and our theoretical commuter gets pretty poor gas mileage of 15mpg. This person would use two-thirds of a gallon of gas to commute 10 miles at a cost of $2.33 — 17 cents less than to take mass transit.

I talk with a lot of people about public transportation and I'll summarize some of the reasons they don't use it more often.

Some complain about the long distances they'd have to walk to a bus stop. Many don't have a stop within a mile of their house. Others have complained about how many transfers they'd have to take to their final destination, transfers that eat up the most time on a bus trip. Some don't like standing outside for long periods of time in extreme weather, be it hot, wet, windy or cold. Most people would choose to spend time in a climate-controlled car.

These are serious disincentives that deter a lot of people from taking the bus, and that's before price is even considered. Many people don't take the bus because they understand that it's just as economical to drive their own car, and they can more quickly get from point A to point B. They don't have to walk more than a few hundred feet, and they can listen to music played as loud as they want.

How do we convince people to drive less, and use public transportation more often? It's a question that needs to be seriously addressed by the governor and UTA. It is they who must come up with a realistic solution, not merely slick ads and sound-bite bromides that won't convince many to give up their cars for mass transit that is both expensive and inefficient.

Air pollution along the Wasatch Front is a serious problem, and I agree with the governor. We do need to drive less. Unfortunately, our public transportation system doesn't have the infrastructure to make people want to drive less, and continually raising fares certainly won't change their minds.

Carl Ingwell is president of Student Clean Air Network and founder-governor of We Cannot Breathe. He lives in Salt Lake City.

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