Salt Lake City mayoral candidates push for free-fare UTA ridership, more alternatives to cars

As the race to become Salt Lake City mayor heats up ahead of the August primary, several candidates are pushing for free UTA fares within city boundaries and for city taxpayers as a way to promote transit ridership and improve air quality.

Jim Dabakis and Stan Penfold floated the idea in separate interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune, as well as at a transportation forum Wednesday evening co-hosted by Bike Utah and the Utah Transit Riders Union at the downtown Salt Lake City Library.

“I am convinced that one of the first steps for getting people on transit is to eliminate the fare,” Penfold, a former Salt Lake City councilman who worked on establishing the first free-fare day for red air during his time on the council, said in an interview before the debate. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing we can do, personally, to work on our air quality is provide opportunities to get out of a car. So that’s a priority for me.”

UTA does have a free-fare zone in the central downtown area for TRAX, bus and paratransit riders, but it encompasses only a small portion of the broader city boundary.

Dabakis, a former state senator, said 11% of the agency’s revenue comes from fares — a small price to pay, he argued, when considering that past free-fare days have boosted ridership.

“Eleven percent, it’s not worthy,” he said. “How much does it cost just to collect that? To have people checking in to have set up all those boxes and collecting the money out of them and auditing and the rest?”

Earlier this year, UTA and other partners offered three free-fare days, which increased overall ridership about 16 percent, according to UTA officials. The agency estimated about 10,500 vehicles were removed from the road each those days and had prevented more than 2.5 tons of pollutants and 80 tons of greenhouse gases daily.

Some bus systems in Utah — in Park City and Cache County — already offer free fares at all times, so Salt Lake City wouldn’t be the first to do this. UTA has been offering it, thanks to a federal grant, on its new Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit system in Provo and Orem. The agency has said the free fares quintupled ridership from the old bus routes it replaced.

In an experiment to reduce air pollution, the Legislature this year created a pilot program to create more free-fare days, which will be triggered by inversion forecasts.

During the forum Wednesday night — the first of the mayoral election cycle — a crowd of more than 50 listened to seven of the nine candidates in the race answer questions about topics ranging from active transportation and safety to equity and parking.

In separate interviews, nearly all of the candidates told The Salt Lake Tribune they would be committed, if elected, to promoting alternatives to cars, particularly in the face of massive population growth.

“We’re not going to be able to expand and see capacity for cars in this city anymore," said David Garbett, former executive director of the Pioneer Park Coalition. "And with growth, in order to have a city that people can move around quickly, we know that we’re going to need to get more people out of cars. And so I think that’s really a strategy of getting more people onto bikes, getting more people to walk, getting more people to use public transit.”

Candidates also said they view transportation as intimately related to affordable housing, another major issue facing the city’s next mayor.

Housing advocates have estimated there is a gap of at least 7,500 apartments that are affordable to renters making $20,000 or less. Meanwhile, rent in the county jumped from an average of $720 a month in 2010 to $1,072 last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s midyear 2018 Apartment Market Report.

“We have 200,000 people leave here every night and come back every morning; 40% of them want to live in the city but can't because of affordable housing,” said businessman David Ibarra. “If we could get them here and then move to a way that we move people throughout this city — and I believe that way is an autonomous electric car system that moves folks from grid to grid to grid to location — we would then improve our environment, improve our affordable housing opportunities and we'd improve transportation.”

While candidates are focused on public transportation and other alternatives to cars, that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about city roads, two-thirds of which are in poor or worse condition, according to a pavement survey commissioned in 2017.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla said she would take a “holistic approach” to transportation, if elected, and would look at everything "from roads that are decent roads” for cars, to ensuring people who are interested in bicycling “have a road area and the roads where they can do that in a safe manner.”

Salt Lake City residents last year approved an $87 million road reconstruction bond to fix some of the failing roads. But Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said that’s not an end-all solution and argued she’s best equipped to lead the city forward.

“As bold as [the bond] was, that’s only a fraction of the actual need for our streets," she said. “So we need a mayor who is willing and understands the financial realities of what it’s going to take to really improve our roads."

Aaron Johnson, a military veteran and novice politician, said that as mayor he would look to do away with one-lane areas in downtown, which he said causes congestion during peak rush hours. Richard Goldberger, a freelance journalist, said he would like to create a program, if elected, where block captains and co-captains would work to clean the city’s “filthy” sidewalks and would push for an expansion of transit to the prison.