UTA renews Salt Lake City discount passes, awards contract for new on-demand transit pilot project in south valley

The Utah Transit Authority Board has approved three significant steps that show continuing evolution in its services.

One project soon will test converting transit in southern Salt Lake County into a cross between Uber and traditional bus service. Another continues a tweaked-over-the-years deal to offer Salt Lake City residents half-price monthly passes. And one seeks grants to resolve bottlenecks that cause delays and limit growth of the FrontRunner commuter train service.

Following is a look at each:

• Microtransit. The board approved testing a new ‘microtransit’ service that like Uber and Lyft will allow hailing a ride with a smartphone. But like traditional bus service, it will have flat fares that do not vary by distance, and rides will be shared with people heading the same direction.

The one-year $2.5 million agreement — renewable for two additional years — was awarded to the ridesharing app company Via.

That firm has 80 current and pending rideshare agreements with public transit authorities in 18 countries, said Via spokesman Andy Ambrosius. That includes such cities as Seattle, Los Angeles, Sydney and London. “We're excited to bring our technology to Utah,” Ambrosius said.

Jaron Robertson, UTA’s program manager for innovative mobility solutions, said Via was chosen over seven other bidders mainly because of its experience and ability to deliver new-generation services that UTA seeks.

Riders will be able to use a smartphone (or make a voice call to a service center) to request a ride within a 65 square-mile area in Bluffdale, Draper, Herriman, Riverton, Sandy and South Jordan. They will be given estimates about when they will be picked up and dropped off.

Transfers will be allowed to other UTA services. The project will focus initially on trying to connect people to transit stations but will drop them anywhere in the service area. It may eventually replace some lightly used bus routes — and expand evening and weekend service.

Via will provide contract drivers and Mercedes Metris vans, which accommodate a driver and six adults. Agreements say such vans provide “an extra layer of professionalism and attractiveness to the service.” Via will also offer some wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

(Photo courtesy of Via) A new contract between UTA and Via calls for using Mercedes Metris bans as part of an experiment with "microtransit."

Contracts call for achieving an average wait time of 15 minutes for a ride and allow a maximum wait of 25 minutes. The service is not exactly door-to-door and may require riders to walk to meeting points. Contracts call for achieving an average walk of 0.10 miles and allow a maximum of 0.25 miles.

UTA aims to launch the service this fall, evaluate it after a year and determine whether to continue or even, perhaps, expand it.

• Discount passes. The UTA Board renewed a deal with Salt Lake City that allows its residents to buy UTA monthly passes at half price — and incorporates some lessons learned over time.

The Hive passes were announced with hoopla back in 2014 — and then cost $360 a year, a discount of $2,016 from the full retail price then for passes allowing access to all UTA transit services. But the city sold only half the 6,000 passes it hoped that residents would buy during the first year — finding many residents could not come up with the $360 price all at once.

So the program was revamped to allow buying passes a month at a time, but the price was raised to $42 a month — and eliminated offering rides on FrontRunner trains, but covered service on bus, TRAX and the Sugar House streetcar.

Hive passes now allow transfers to FrontRunner but cover travel only to one stop without incurring extra costs. Also included is a one-year free GREENBike membership. Residents may also pre-purchase Hive passes for a year for $475, which is an additional $29 discount.

The 50% discount on the retail price of monthly passes comes from the city (which covers 30%) and UTA (20%). UTA figures the Hive passes generate about $1 million of revenue a year. The agency generates about $52 million a year from fares overall in a year.

• Double-tracking FrontRunner. The UTA Board have given officials the go-ahead to seek federal grants for projects to double-track more of the FrontRunner commuter rail system.

Most of it is now on single tracks. If a train breaks down, it can shut down the entire system in both directions. Also, the frequency of service is limited by timing that allows trains to pass each other at the few sections with double tracks.

UTA will seek up to $25 million in federal funds in proposals that call for double-tracking around the city of Vineyard in Utah County. It plans on using as a local match land UTA owns and construction of a station in Vineyard valued at $11 million.

Proposals also call for double-tracking between the Draper and South Jordan stations. Grant proposals are scaled to allow different amounts of double-tracking, depending on how much money is obtained.