Utah Transit Authority buses and trains will be free for all on Feb. 28 and March 1 — Thursday and Friday next week — in an experiment to help reduce air pollution and attract new riders.
UTA said at a news conference Wednesday that it will be funded by $80,000 in donations from others: $25,000 each from Salt Lake County and Intermountain Health Care, $20,000 from Salt Lake City and $10,000 from Davis County.
Also, UTA will essentially contribute lost cash fares from those days — which officials estimated at roughly $70,000 for a typical weekday.
“The public can ride free on all UTA bus and rail services,” said UTA board Chairman Carlton Christensen.
Two years ago, UTA held one similar free-fare day in concert with Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City.
“We saw some pretty impressive results,” Christensen said. “Across our system, we had a 23 percent overall increase in ridership. The increase equated to removing 17,560 vehicles from Utah roads.”
He said that saved 3 tons of particulate pollution, and prevented 200 tons of greenhouse gases.
“This year we would like to especially encourage people to ride the bus,” Christensen said. “We have been making several improvements to our bus system. With increased frequency, the bus is an important part of our transportation system.”
Lisa Nichols, associate vice president of Intermountain Healthcare, said, “We truly see this effort as something that can improve the health of the community and community residents.”
She notes that during bad air days, fewer people exercise outdoors. And more people suffer respiratory problems from asthma to allergies, bronchitis, pneumonia and more.
“For us, air pollution is correlated with an increase in emergency room visits and hospitalization for these conditions, while cleaner air is correlated with a decrease,” she said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski noted her city just approved agreements with UTA to fund and launch more high-frequency bus routes beginning in August.
“We want to get the community used to the idea of using transit to get around our community,” and she said she hopes the free-fare days help.
“We want to make sure that people have the transit opportunity they need to connect to their employment and schools,” she said. “We are very hopeful that this also creates equity in opportunity for those who live in this community who do not own their own vehicles. We want to lift up the most vulnerable.”
Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson said the free days help people learn how to use transit, and ridership “will continue to grow and it will be one of those things that in the future will not only help us get people to work … it will also clean our air.”
“It is not an inexpensive proposition,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said about transit. “But it more than pays for itself in terms of quality of life. ... We are excited to live in a community when we have options and have connectivity.”
Some bus systems in Utah — in Park City and Cache County — offer free fare at all times. UTA has been offering it, thanks to a federal grant, on its new Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit system in Provo and Orem. It has said that has quintupled ridership there.