New UTA leaders will scrutinize discount programs as passenger fares make up only 14 percent of transit revenue

The Utah Transit Authority figures that about 2 of every 5 passengers on its buses and trains use discount passes supplied through employers or colleges.

Those lucky people save sometimes more than $1,000 a year compared with commuters who pay full fares and receive the same services.

On top of that, the agency says an unknown number of other riders also escape full fares through a variety of discount programs. For example, users of its electronic Farepay cards receive 40 percent off bus fares and 20 percent off TRAX and FrontRunner tickets.

Amid all the discounts and deals, UTA raises only 14 percent of its overall revenue from fares, with the bulk of the rest coming from local sales tax and federal funding.

Because of that, a new law enacted by the Legislature this year to restructure the agency also ordered its leaders to review whether the many discounts are fair and reasonable for all residents.

UTA’s current soon-to-be-disbanded board is in the process of punting the task to a new three-member commission that will assume oversight of the agency by Nov. 1.

The current board has drafted a resolution needed to continue most current discount programs for now and is expected to approve it later this month.

The agency also paused an ongoing study on possible reforms to its fares — which includes looking at replacing the current single charge for a trip of any length to possibly charging additional fares for trips that go beyond one county or zone.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People go about their day as the Salt Lake City Council, Salt Lake County and the Utah Transit Authority gather on the North Temple Bridge/Guadalupe TRAX station in Salt Lake to announce Free Fare Friday to encourage greater use of transit during periods of poor air quality.

Still, a board committee heard a report this week about just how extensive the current discount programs are — including 20 offered to schools and companies that require renewal this year, plus several others offered to seniors, the homeless and even the general public if they take certain steps.

Deeply discounted annual passes

Discounts can make a big difference in how much different riders pay for the same service.

For example, a commuter paying the full regular fare of $2.50 for a one-way bus or TRAX trip would spend $5 a day for a round trip, $100 for four weeks, or $1,300 a year. Commuters using FrontRunner could pay even more, up to $10.30 a day or $2,678 a year.

Much less than that is the $872 annual pass offered to businesses that sign up a minimum number of employees for passes. Among companies taking advantage of that program are Western Governors University and Rockwell Collins.

A deal that is twice as good — $392 for an annual pass — is offered to businesses that sell or provide passes to 100 percent of their employees. Among firms providing this are Fidelity Investments, Ernst & Young and J.C. Penney Co.

Better yet is the extra 25 percent off that is offered to nonprofits — or $294 for an annual pass if provided to all employees. Among participants in this discount are the LDS Church and Downtown Provo Inc.

Even a better deal is a $199 annual pass, offered as a first-year-only introductory price to companies providing or selling passes to all employees. Current recipients include Lucid Software and Pluralsight.

Auditors, attorneys and fiscal analysts working for the Utah Legislature — but not lawmakers themselves — had the best deal of all, just $91 for an annual pass. (That is $1,209 less than a commuter paying full bus or TRAX fare would spend in a year.) This steep discount plan is one of the few being discontinued on June 30.

Other corporate, school passes

UTA offers numerous other types of discounted passes to companies, schools and others on a monthly, daily or even per-trip basis.

For example, through a partnership with Salt Lake City, UTA offers its residents a $42 monthly “Hive” pass — less than half what a commuter might spent for regular fare.

Also, it sometimes cuts deals with sponsors of concerts or sports to allow event tickets to also serve as free transit tickets. It does the same with some groups holding conventions here to allow attendees to have free passes.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Student climbs aboard UTA bus at Presidents Circle stop at the University of Utah, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012.

UTA works out individual contracts with numerous colleges to provide passes for students and faculty. For example, it cut a deal last year with Brigham Young and Utah Valley universities to provide an estimated 100,000 transit passes a year for $1 million a year for 10 years (about $10 per annual pass).

UTA spokesman Carl Arky said a poll the agency did in 2015-16 showed that 38 percent of riders reported using major pass programs.

The agency also offers many other discounts beyond those pass programs but does not have a good estimate of what percentage of all riders pay less than full fare, said Nichol Bourdeaux, UTA vice president of external affairs.

Helping the poor

Some of those other discounts are mandated by the Federal Transit Administration as a condition of the funding it provides.

For example, fares for seniors, the disabled and Medicare cardholders during nonpeak times may not be more than 50 percent of the cost of full peak-hour fare.

UTA also has chosen to offer other discounts to help the needy. It offers 25 percent off monthly passes to minors and students or poor people deemed eligible by the Department of Workforce Services.

The agency sells bus tokens, day passes and monthly passes at 50 percent off to groups that distribute them to homeless people for free. Among participants are The Road Home shelter and Volunteers of America.

In addition to its discount for electronic payments using its Farecard, UTA offers a daily group pass for $15 for four riders. And it offers a 10 percent discount on 10-packs of bus tokens.

Why offer so many discounts?

They help UTA by removing “barriers to entry for large markets of ridership” and also provide a “predictable and sustainable revenue resource,” Bourdeaux said in a recent presentation.

She said these programs to increase ridership also benefit the community at large by reducing pollution, thinning traffic congestion, easing parking demand and helping people get to work and services who don’t have alternative transportation.