As it reworks its fare policy, UTA has no idea how many people ride free or with discounts

(Photo courtesy of UTA) A UTA fare enforcement surge on October 21, 2017.

The Utah Transit Authority is in the midst of reworking its fare structure and policies in an effort to simplify what has become a complicated patchwork quilt of at least 74 levels of discounts, promotions and negotiated deals.

How complicated?

The heavily taxpayer subsidized agency has no idea how many of the tens of millions of passenger rides each year are free or discounted, and how many are charged the full $2.50 cash fare for a one-way trip.

“We do not have an estimate,” the agency said in response to an open-records request filed by The Salt Lake Tribune. But fragmented data provided suggest that fairly or not, those who pay full fare may be a small minority.

As the agency is reworking its fare policy an array of changes are under consideration — everything from the probably long-shot possibility of moving to a totally free-fare system — similar to Park City and Cache County bus systems — or, at the other end of the spectrum, increasing fares and possibly spreading costs more evenly among groups of riders.

The current system of collecting the wide range of fares is not cheap and it has a lot of moving parts.

UTA negotiates pass discounts individually with dozens of colleges and employers. It produces fare payment methods ranging from tokens to electronic or paper passes. It operates ticket machines and sales offices. It pays police and enforcement officers to fine people who ride without paying. It also has the daily expense of collecting and depositing money.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) UTA police officer Aymee Race explains the ticket she has just written up to a rider getting off a MAX bus who failed to buy a ticket.

Amid all that, passenger revenue now generates only 11% of UTA’s total operating budget, while the lion’s share comes from sales tax.

Free fare system coming?

So is charging fares worth the cost and hassle, or should UTA perhaps move to a free-fare system — which would likely increase ridership and help reduce the region’s air pollution and traffic congestion?

“The jury’s out on this,” new UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot, who has been on the job six months, said in an interview.

“We’re just trying to take a look at this. We’re looking at the fare structure. We’re looking at the fare collection equipment. What’s the cost to collect the fares? There’s going to be a cost-benefit analysis. We will take a look,” she said. “We have a free fare zone [in downtown Salt Lake City]. Do we look at something that expands that? I don’t know.”

On the table also is whether fares should be raised. Gonot says the base $2.50 one-way fare likely will not increase this year but gives no guarantees after that.

Don’t build up hopes too high that UTA will switch anytime soon to a totally free-fare system anytime soon because losing the $52 million a year now coming from fares would hurt.

“I can’t say that giving up those fares would make sense, especially when we’re trying to utilize our system more,” Gonot said. It is looking at trying to cover more geographic areas and increase the frequency of service and expand night and weekend offerings.

“Right now, my focus is to make the system more efficient so that more people will ride it with the same amount of buses we have,” she said, and notes offering free fares would likely increase ridership but make funding current service levels difficult.

Who gets free rides, discounts now?

Fragmented data provided by UTA, including through an open records request, suggest that full fare was paid last year for a minority of its 42.24 million boardings. The reasons are myriad:

• Discounts are offered for seniors, students, military members and the disabled and children under five ride free. UTA had no estimates for how often these discounts are used.

• Free fare is offered on buses and TRAX trains in downtown Salt Lake City. UTA says it is unable to say how many riders stay within the free zone or how many bought fare for more distant destinations.

• UTA employees and their dependents receive free fare and used it for 223,654 boardings (about 0.5% of all fares last year).

• Another 357,475 free boardings were used for help in “training” the disabled and others how to use the system and to escort them.

• An unknown number of free fare rides were given to police officers and personal care attendants.

• A federal grant covers free fare for riders on the new Utah Valley Express bus rapid transit system — one of UTA’s great success stories, with online ridership estimates suggesting 2.27 million rides (about 5% of all of UTA’s boardings systemwide last year).

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

• About a third of all riders used electronic fare media, and virtually all of them have discounts, Gonot said.

• Fifteen universities and private schools negotiated discount passes for students and faculty, and UTA figured the average discount was 42%. UTA says it recorded 6.8 million boardings by that group. But officials say it could be much more, because riders sometimes fail to “tap on” with electronic passes.

• UTA provided a list of 106 companies and cities that negotiated and bought passes for employees at various discount rates, accounting for at least 3.4 million boardings.

Again officials say it could be higher because many fail to “tap on” with electronic passes. Included in that are discount Hive Passes that Salt Lake City buys and offers to residents.

• Many groups have contracts with UTA to offer free fares for customers to special events, such as the University of Utah paying to allow sports tickets holders to use transit for free on game day. Others have similar arrangements for concerts or festivals.

• Several groups are given complimentary passes by UTA. For example, its board recently approved free passes for staff of the Legislature during its 45-day session. They are also given to visitors from other transit agencies and to some conventions.

• UTA offers a 50% discount to 42 different social agencies that agree to give passes for free to people experiencing homelessness. Because those are paper passes, UTA says it has no estimate about how many trips they generate. The agency is starting a pilot project to offer 75% discounts to expand that program to more low-income people.

• The Legislature is providing $492,000 for an experiment to offer free fares on seven high-pollution days to see how much of an impact it may have on air quality. The agency has offered similar free-fare days with funding from other cities, counties and groups in recent year.

New policy coming

The UTA Board in the past week looked at an early draft of a new fare policy.

It suggests still allowing a wide variety of discounts, but to streamline them. It will also allow discounted promotions to seek new riders, such as a recent one that allowed a second rider to travel for free on a promotion day.

The proposal also calls for making electronic media the preferred way to pay for fares, which has the benefits of tracking ridership by different groups and where commuters travel at different times to help with planning. At the same time, it aims to minimize the role of bus operator in collecting fares.

The draft still calls for alternatives, including cash fares, to allow such people as tourists to have easy access to transit. It also calls for a cost-benefit analysis of collecting fares, and various methods of doing it.

UTA’s Board expects to continue working on the policy for several months before offering a proposal for public comment later this year.