It’ll only be a partial free-fare February for most Wasatch Front transit riders this year.
Even though the Utah Transit Authority’s ”Free Fare February” pilot program last year saw a boom in ridership and an improvement in air quality, the agency this month will only provide 10 days of free service.
Those zero-fare days will run from Feb. 12-21, a stretch of time that intentionally overlaps with when Salt Lake City will host the NBA All-Star Game.
The free service applies to FrontRunner, TRAX and all buses including the ski bus, as well as paratransit services and UTA on-demand.
Outside of that 10-day stretch, anyone planning to fly in February will also receive free transit service on their day of air travel, as long as they present a printed or digital airline boarding pass.
Why the change?
Last year, UTA offered free service for the entire month of February through a partnership with Salt Lake City — but this year’s zero-fare days are funded by UTA alone, said UTA spokesperson Carl Arky.
To make last year’s free-fare February possible, UTA raised over $2.5 million, about $1.1 million of which was sponsored by organizations including the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Mountainland Association of Governments, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the Utah Division of Air Quality.
“I don’t think it was a matter of [lack of sponsorship,]” Arky said of this February’s fewer zero-fare days. “It was just something that we initiated and decided to do.”
Last year, he noted that Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake City approached UTA about the program, but this year, “We just thought that this would be a good thing to do, so it’s our initiative.”
Gov. Spencer Cox supports UTA’s 10 free-fare days this month, as well as the ticket-as-fare program for air travelers, his office said in a statement, noting that Cox understands public transit must be part of Utah’s transportation solution as the state continues to grow.
That’s partly why the governor in December recommended a one-year, statewide, zero-fare pilot program as a part of his 2024 budget.
“We think with this one-year pilot program, that will allow us to really see what’s happening,” Cox said in a December news conference.
“This is a win-win — we have the money to fund it,” he continued, adding that it’s “good for clean air; it’s good to get cars off of our congested roadways. And we think it will make a big difference long term.”
Could a free-fare year be coming?
Cox’s budget called for a recommended allocation of $25 million to support the proposed year of free UTA transit, along with a $500,000 transit study to analyze the impacts of the pilot program.
He also called on UTA’s fare-subsidy partners, such the University of Utah and Snowbird Ski Resort, to continue paying subsides for their users during the proposed pilot year to cover $13.1 million in additional costs. Last year, 87% of these partners continued paying their subsidies for free-fare February.
“Do I think it’s feasible? I mean, perhaps for a year, though I doubt it,” said Curtis Haring, executive director of the Utah Transit Riders Association. “The partners that participated definitely have their interests as far as making sure that people can get to their work and do their jobs.”
“But, I mean, it’s not really their jobs,” Haring said of those subsidy partners. “...So I would say the state has a responsibility to really handle that.”
Cox in December said the proposed year of free fares could start in summer or fall, depending on whether the Legislature approves.
“For us to even have 10 days available in this case,” Haring said of the abbreviated free-fare February program this year, “for people around the country to kind of come and see our city and state — it really speaks to the fact that transit is a necessary and important part of our local economy.”
“And by providing free services, it just speaks to the fact that policymakers do see the value in it,” he added.
Detailed schedules on UTA’s extended and free service during the NBA All-Star Game can be found on the UTA website.