One Utah Transit Authority bus route now is carrying about as many people — or more on some days — as the Green Line TRAX trains.

The Utah Valley Express (UVX), a bus rapid transit line in Orem and Provo that serves both Utah Valley and Brigham Young universities, now averages about 14,600 boardings daily. On some days, like the football game between BYU and the University of Utah, it had more than 16,000.

In comparison, ridership on the Green Line TRAX averaged about 15,400 boardings a day in August. Its lowest monthly average so far this year was in May, with 13,284, according to UTA data.

Light-rail lines such as TRAX — which offer service every 15 minutes on trains with many long cars — usually carry far more passengers than bus routes. UTA funnels most of its bus lines to trains because of their capacity for more people and swifter travel.

But the UVX is not a typical bus line. Officials have called it a sort of TRAX on rubber wheels.

It offers service every six minutes at peak times, and every 10 minutes off-peak. About half its 10.5-mile route is in exclusive travel lanes for buses not shared with other vehicles. Buses have extra doors and limited stops. Buses are longer than normal — 60 feet instead of 40.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) One of UTA's Utah Valley Express (UVX) buses makes a stop in Orem, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2018.

But Mary De La Mare-Schaefer, regional manager for UTA, sees an even bigger reason for high ridership on UVX.

“It’s the free fares,” she says.

UTA received a federal grant to allow free ridership on UVX for three years, and two years are left.

The agency also struck a deal with BYU and UVU to provide transit passes for unlimited transit on buses and trains to their students, faculty and staff — and, in some cases, their family members. The agreement costs each school $1 million a year for 10 years and is expected to provide up to 100,000 passes annually.

With all that, UTA bus ridership has increased nearly eightfold from the 1,863 boardings on average before UVX launched to its current daily average.

De La Mare-Schaefer said UTA also has seen an increase in FrontRunner train ridership as more students are deciding to commute via mass transit from as far away as Salt Lake County and even Davis and Weber counties, and transfer to UVX. She said the Orem station is the busiest on the FrontRunner line, and Provo is No. 2, because of UVX.

Utah Valley University is reporting that it sold 1,200-plus fewer parking passes to students this year than before UVX started operating, De La Mare-Schaefer said, reducing congestion and potentially giving the school more room for facilities besides parking.

“More students are not parking on campus,” she said. “They didn’t want to add another parking lot or parking structure, so that’s one of the indicators we like to look at.”

She noted that this is also the first year that BYU sent notices to its students and their parents that they need not bring a car because of service from UVX — which is also helping to drive up ridership. Such notice was not sent when the service first opened in August 2018 because it was still under partial construction, used some temporary stations and lacked some bus-only lanes.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA Utah Valley Express (UVX) bus on May 30, 2018.

UVX ridership does fall off dramatically during the summer, when fewer students are attending BYU and UVU. In August, before fall semesters at the universities began, ridership averaged only 5,866 daily, De La Mare-Schaefer said, before rising to about 14,600 when the schools were in full swing.

Still, she’s pleased that “about 40% of our ridership this summer was with community members. We believe the free fare encourages them to ride,” saying transit is new to many of them. Free fare helps them overcome “a fear barrier," and learn how to use mass transit, she said. And she hopes UVX can retain most of these riders when free fares eventually disappear.

UTA has more than 200 miles of additional bus-rapid transit lines in its future plans, including from downtown Ogden to Weber State University, from West Valley City through Taylorsville to Murray, and through Davis County to Salt Lake City.

While UTA has high hopes for similar success with them, De La Mare-Schaefer says that UVX may be “a little bit of a unicorn because we have these two large university populations, so our numbers are going to be high from those centers.”

Such success helped lead mayors in northern Utah County to kick off a study to look at whether a similar bus rapid transit system there may help solve some traffic problems and provide better access to the high-tech Silicon Slopes area.

Before its completion, UVX was controversial. Resident groups sued unsuccessfully to stop it, arguing, among other things, that it would have low ridership and would complicate traffic flow for other vehicles. It also had an $11 million cost overrun beyond its initial $190 million price tag because of higher-than-expected bids and land costs.

Still, the UVX was much cheaper than building a TRAX line. In 2011, the mid-Jordan TRAX extension covering an equal distance cost $535 million — 2.8 times the cost of UVX.

Stops on the UVX include the Orem FrontRunner Station, UVU, University Mall, BYU, the Latter-day Saint Missionary Training Center, downtown Provo, the Provo Town Centre Mall and the Provo FrontRunner station.