Could UTA’s ‘Free Fare February’ become Free Fare Forever?

The Utah Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus hopes other lawmakers will get on board with a bill to make public transportation more appealing.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tuesday, February 1, 2022.

Could taking public transportation be cost-free for passengers one day? Some lawmakers are hoping so.

In HB164, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, proposes that all Utah Transit Authority services be provided to passengers for free, perpetually. The legislation is intended to increase ridership on public transport, thus reducing the amount of air pollution coming from Utah’s roadways.

“The concept is 24/7/365. Buses, FrontRunner, TRAX, all day, every day, 365 days of the year, no fares,” said Briscoe, co-chair of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus.

The bill comes before the Legislature at an opportune time. UTA is currently offering passengers a month of free bus and rail service, dubbed “Free Fare February.”

“UTA has held several free fare days with support from our partners,” Carlton Christensen, UTA Board of Trustees Chair, said earlier this year. “We are excited to build on that success with Free Fare February, continuing efforts to increase awareness about how we can improve our air quality by riding public transit.”

The legislation was one of a plethora of bill and appropriation requests discussed by the Clean Air Caucus at a news conference in the Capitol Gold Room on Wednesday afternoon.

Briscoe’s proposed bill would take that initiative one step further, creating free fares forever. He added that he’s excited to look at the impact the month of free transit has in four weeks’ time.

The ambitious legislation will have to clear some significant hurdles before becoming law, funding chief among them.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, UTA would stand to lose an estimated $40-50 million of revenue each year. However, the bill “likely will not result in direct expenditures from tax or fee change” for residents, the note stated, leaving questions about how the lost revenue would be recovered.

Briscoe said that funding for the initiative wasn’t included in this year’s budget.

“It wasn’t part of the governor’s budget, but maybe in a year or two, some of it will be a part of the governor’s budget,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere. And people won’t say yes if you don’t ask. So you’ve got to ask.”

While acknowledging the long road ahead, the bill’s sponsor did note that he’s received support from other legislators and constituents, who have asked him how they can help push the legislation forward.

“People in Utah want cleaner air,” Briscoe told The Salt Lake Tribune.

The bill is set to be discussed in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee later in the session.

The caucus meets multiple times each year to hear from constituents, advocacy groups, political bodies, universities and legislative auditors to learn about the most important air-quality issues facing Utahns. It’s where many of the ideas for clean-air bills, such as Briscoe’s, begin.

“We’ve got a little nucleus of people here that care enough to spend some time to get educated on legislation,” Briscoe said.

Other bills discussed at the press conference included HB221 — sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper — which proposes an income tax credit for those who purchase or lease electric vehicles and SB136 —sponsored by Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City — that would expand the makeup of the Air Quality Policy Advisory Board.