The Utah Transit Authority extended contracts Wednesday with Ogden and Layton that allow it to dabble with free fares on a few bus routes — something the agency is experimenting with more often as a way to increase ridership.

Free fare on the year-old Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit system — allowed by a three-year federal grant — has helped that line increase ridership by eight-fold, and it now attracts as many riders as the TRAX Green Line, and more on some days. Transit officials have noticed.

The UTA Board on Wednesday extended contracts with Ogden and Layton where payments from the cities allow free fare on buses that look like trolleys that loop through their business districts from nearby FrontRunner commuter train stops.

Ogden agreed in its contract extension to pay $72,328 next year, enough to cover 25% of the estimated cost to operate the Route 601 Ogden Trolley, which runs every 20 minutes. It began service in August.

“We’ve had 11,000 riders” in four months, said Andres Colman, UTA’s regional general manager in Ogden. “Ridership is growing every month. Interestingly, ridership on Saturdays is higher than weekdays, which means that people are coming in to visit Ogden and use the trolley — which is one of the reasons for this route.”

He said surveys show it is being used by local workers, tourists and families that enjoy the novelty of riding a trolley bus.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Historic-style trolley bus at the Layton FrontRunner station, Oct. 15, 2018. Ridership on the route has been growing and is up 14% over last year, UTA officials said Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.

Layton will pay $159,158 to cover 25% of the operating costs of the Route 628 Layton Midtown Trolley, which operates every 30 minutes. It began service in August 2017.

“Ridership on the route is growing,” Colman said. “In the last 12 months, we’ve had 128,000 riders. That’s up 14% over the previous 12-month period.”

Rider fares generate only about 11% of UTA’s overall revenue, while the bulk comes from sales taxes for transit. But the agency has said it cannot afford to operate its current system without collecting fares, unless it finds partners to cover the gap, such as Ogden and Layton are doing.

It also partnered with Salt Lake City to offer its residents half-price HIVE passes, and worked with many universities and businesses to offer either free or discounted passes to their employees or students. The University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University all offer free passes to students and faculty.

Also, the Legislature this year approved spending $500,000 to allow free fares on seven bad air pollution days as an experiment to see if it may help reduce inversions and also increase ridership.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking west towards downtown Salt Lake City. Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.
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While UTA offers free fares only when costs are covered by partners, two other transit districts in Utah — in Park City and Cache County — offer free fares on all routes.

The UTA Board on Wednesday also approved contracts with partners to help cover the cost of ski buses in Davis and Weber counties, and to provide some discounted or free passes for their workers and customers.

That included a contract with Visit Ogden to give it a 20% discount on ski bus passes distributed to Weber County hotels to sell to their guests.

Davis County agreed to pay $82,025, or 93% of the direct operating costs of Route 677 from Layton to Snowbasin, and receive 500 electronic passes for Snowbasin employees and season pass holders. Colman said ridership on that route was up 83% last year with 10,450 boardings.

Snowbasin agreed to pay $46,296 to cover 40% of the costs for Route 675 from Ogden to the resort. It had 17,590 boardings last year, a slight increase over the previous year. It will receive 750 electronic passes for workers and season pass holders.

Powder Mountain will pay $57,438 to cover 40% of the costs for Route 675 from Ogden to its resort. It had 34,660 boardings last year, up 82%. It also will receive 750 electronic passes for workers and season pass holders.