UTA to offer free fares to more low-income people, with help from schools and social agencies

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Transit Authority bus riders load a bus Farmington on March 7, 2019.

Carlton Christensen long worked with low-income people, addicts, the homeless and former convicts — as a Salt Lake City councilman, a county official overseeing some programs for the poor and as a Latter-day Saint stake president.

He found they often face a common roadblock to success.

“Transportation is always a challenge,” says Christensen, chairman of the Utah Transit Authority Board. He says many cannot afford the agency’s full fares for buses and trains — and do not work for companies that offer discount passes. Few have access to cars.

That prevents them from taking many of the available jobs that “are farther out on the outskirts and are challenging to get to.” It’s also hard to get to doctor or school or legal or treatment appointments. It leads some former convicts, he says, to fall back to crime.

“As a society, we are shooting ourselves in the foot” by not solving that, he says.

Such experiences led him and others at UTA to develop a pilot project that will soon give many poor individuals free bus and train fare, thanks to subsidies from partner schools and social agencies.

Beginning Feb. 1, UTA will offer electronic fare cards at a 75% percent discount to such groups — as long as they give the cards to the low-income (which they can define themselves) for free. They will be good for varying lengths of time chosen by agencies — a day, three days or a month — and are good beginning at first use.

Up to now, UTA has offered such programs only for the homeless — and for less of a discount, often around 50%. Christensen said that served a narrow spectrum and excluded many people who are in danger of becoming homeless or face other serious struggles.

Monica Morton, UTA fares director, says groups showing interest include halfway houses, groups offering temporary housing, addiction recovery programs, social service agencies working with the poor and school districts that want to help families of children who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.

Christensen said the agency also has met with employers who “are willing to take those coming out of homelessness or coming out of the criminal justice system or maybe who’ve had some challenges in employment. They’re interested in being able to assist those individuals in that daily commute."

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Carlton Christensen speaks as officials celebrate the 20th anniversary of TRAX trains during a news conference at the City Creek Trax stop on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Dec. 4, 2019.

He says domestic abuse shelters and groups working with people with autism also have expressed interest.

James Yapias, director of development at the Salt Lake City School District, said it is interested in using the program to help some families of poor students. “We’ve had parent-teacher conferences that some may not make” because of transportation issues, he told the UTA Board recently.

Also, the school district formed some partnerships with employers to offer apprenticeships for high school students. “But a lot of our students in the Glendale and Rose Park areas” had limited access to affordable transportation, Yapias said, making it difficult to participate.

The UTA pilot program is scheduled to operate through May 2021 to see how many people might be served, how many agencies are interested and the possible effects on the transit agency.

Christensen concedes that much of that is now unknown.

“How do we know what the impact is? You know, we don’t,” he said. “We’re going to learn that in this process. We want the discount to be enough that it is something that people will be interested in, but also fiscally responsible for the agency.”

He said most agency costs are now fixed and likely won’t be affected much by the program.

“We’re going to run a bus regardless, and there’s some [unused] capacity there,” he said. “We’re hoping that between the combination of some fares [from partners] and using some underutilized capacity that it could be a win-win. And you develop a new group of riders.”

Christensen said the agency is taking “a bit of a leap of faith. But I think if there’s a place for us to take a little bit of risk, this is probably the arena to do it.”

Christensen says the pilot program probably is not a step toward possible free fares for everyone.

That is something the agency has experimented with elsewhere, such as with its Utah Valley Express buses — where ridership increased more than eightfold. That program is subsidized by a federal grant and through deals with Brigham Young and Utah Valley universities. Also, the Legislature is funding some free fare days during inversions to see if they will help reduce air pollution.

When he arrived at UTA just over a year ago, Christensen thought maybe the agency should convert to free fare for everyone (fares now provide about 11% of UTA’s total revenue). “But the more I studied and looked at it,” he said, “I think free fair is problematic in the long term.”

It could force cancellation of service and prevent expansion unless other funding sources are found. Another problem, he said, is free fares may make it difficult to remove people who might try to ride all day.

Is Christensen concerned that the pilot program might scare away wealthier people who may fear it will attract some people they would rather avoid?

“We’re generally a compassionate community. I don’t see too many issues,” he said, especially because most people in the program would be using it for jobs and help and are unlikely to engage in bad behavior on transit.