Free transit pass offered to Salt Lake City parents as school district, UTA expand student and staff program

UTA riders and trips have seen a spike in the first year of the program, the agency said, which will now be expanded to include a parent or guardian.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks at a news conference about the new UTA guardian pass program, at West High School, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Derek Wilhelm has always loved public transportation.

Whether it’s getting to work, school or home, the West High School senior has been able to take advantage of the city’s transit to “accomplish a lot independently.”

“I was always able to have a way to get to school and back, rarely being late and allowing my parents to work or sleep as needed,” said Wilhelm, West High’s student body president.

For the past year, Salt Lake City School District, in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority, has given all of its students, staff and faculty free transit passes. But now, the program will include a free pass for one parent or guardian, the district and its partners announced at a news conference Thursday.

The program — which also partners with the city and the Salt Lake Education Foundation — began as a way not only to help students and faculty to cut transportation costs, but also improve air quality and provide them safer alternatives to walking and driving.

Since then, the UTA had seen an average of 3,000 unique riders a month as a response to the program, as well as a 586% increase in trips taken, to around 430,400 trips, said Carlton Christensen, chair of UTA’s board of trustees. Outside the school year, it saw around 62,000 trips in June and in July from 2,850 unique users.

“This is a pattern that we as a transit agency and certainly as a community hope to see continue,” Christensen said.

Now, with the addition of one guardian per student, he said, the hope is to allow parents to be more involved with the district, such as attending extracurricular activities.

“So often, mobility — both for parent and student — is a challenge in making sure they’re engaged in the educational process,” Christensen said.

For example, parents or guardians can use their passes to ride to school with their kids, or help them get to school events and parent teacher conferences, said district superintendent Elizabeth Grant.

But the pass is “more than a free ride” for families, she said, as the program “affects their bottom line.”

“More than half our students are low income,” she said. “Every dollar saved in transportation makes a great deal of difference to our families.”

The addition of the guardian pass will up the cost of the program to $493,648, according to UTA spokesperson Carl Arky, with $279,000 coming from the district and the Salt Lake Education Foundation; a $100,000 recommendation to the city’s annual budget from the mayor; and $114,648 from city council.

School systems should ‘pay attention to accessibility’

In the past year, Salt Lake City School District has heard about concerns from community members regarding accessibility issues, especially with geographic disparities.

For example, some have heard from west side students or have experienced themselves how difficult it was to be involved in extracurricular activities or be engaged at schools on the east side of the city.

The program has and will continue to help students stay engaged, said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, in activities that include after-school opportunities, jobs and internships.

“It’s changing opportunities for our students who [now] don’t have to go home because they don’t have another way after school,” Mendenhall said. “They can get places around this community that connect them to those opportunities.”

Through UTA, students can also use its “On Demand” app to request an Uber-like vehicle if they live in an area where there aren’t many or frequent bus routes, said district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.

“It opens doors for people who might otherwise not have a ride home after their school programs, and that’s something we want to continue to see,” Chatwin said.

Others have also noted at board meetings how the distance between the meeting location and the west side can made it difficult for community members to voice their opinions.

And that’s where the expanded program will also come in handy, Grant said, providing parents and guardians with “easy transportation” and saving them money.

“Any school system has to pay attention to accessibility,” she said. “So however they choose to use it to engage with the Salt Lake District ... We’re glad to be able to have the UTA passes to support transportation for them.”

Correction • 2:22 p.m. Sept. 1, 2023: This story has been updated to reflect that $100,000 did not come from a mayor’s fund, but rather a recommendation to the city’s annual budget from the mayor.