While the Utah Transit Authority is offering free fare on its buses and trains Thursday and Friday, Utah lawmakers advanced a bill that may add 17 such free-fare days scattered over the next three years to see how much it might reduce pollution.
Unlike the free fare days this week — which appear to be happening on relatively clean air days — the future ones would be triggered in a $1.2 million pilot program on days that are expected to be especially dirty just before or during inversions.
“This is a carrot. This is not a stick” to give drivers a financial incentive to use mass transit during bad air days — and then measure what kind of effect it has, said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, sponsor of the bill.
The House Natural Resources Committee endorsed HB353 unanimously, and sent it to the full House for consideration. It is intended to be part of a $100 million package of clean-air legislation requested by Gov. Gary Herbert.
Briscoe said that a survey by Envision Utah found that residents say the biggest incentive that could get them to use mass transit on bad air days is free fares.
UTA offered one free-fare day in concert with Salt Lake County two years ago, just before Christmas. It said its overall ridership increased by 23 percent that day and figured it removed 17,500 vehicles from the road. That lead to an estimated savings of 3 tons of particulate pollution and prevented 200 tons of greenhouse gases.
Briscoe said his bill is designed as a pilot program to provide more data on how much of an incentive free fares would be, and to better measure the effects on the air — including whether offering them on “orange” days may prevent “red” days later. Its $1.2 million cost would cover the cash fares lost by UTA.
It was supported by the transit agency and the Utah Division of Air Quality.
Bryce Bird, director of the division, said the bill would allow officials to quickly call free-fare days when weather conditions indicate that orange or red days are likely. He added it will have a big “impact on public perception, people being willing to talk about the issue, and media coverage on an issue that is important to us.”
The free-fare days this week are funded by $80,000 contributed by Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Davis County and Intermountain Healthcare. UTA also contributed by essentially giving up an estimated $70,000 a day in cash fares.
Briscoe added his bill would allow such donations from others to perhaps add additional free-fare days during the proposed three-year pilot project.
Matt Sibul, UTA director of government relations, said within the next 10 days the transit agency hopes to have a report on ridership and other effects of the free-fare days offered Thursday and Friday. That report may come as Briscoe’s bill is still being debated.
Some bus systems in Utah — in Park City and Cache County — already offer free fares at all times. UTA has been offering it, thanks to a federal grant, on its new Utah Valley Express rapid transit system in Provo and Orem. It has said that has quintupled ridership there.