Pandemic puts kink in UTA experiment to offer free rides for low-income people

In an experiment, the Utah Transit Authority found 51 agencies willing to buy bus and train passes — at a 75% discount — to give to low-income people for free. The idea was to help many more poor people secure trips for such essentials as jobs, doctor visits and school.

Then the pandemic hit.

Many of those new partners — from school districts to social agencies, homeless shelters, health departments and job agencies — reported that they were hit hard financially and struggled to provide their normal core programs.

So, “some of the organizations have shared that they were never able to launch their transit pass benefit as they fully intended,” Kensey Kunkel, UTA manager of business development and sales told the agency’s board Wednesday. Also, they said demand was lower than expected amid shutdowns and pandemic restrictions.

So 11 months into the pilot project scheduled to end in June, some initially encouraging numbers about helping low-income people have ended up not being as bright.

“Despite giving out nearly 19,000 passes [initially], there have only been 3,300 distinct users” so far, Kunkel said. They used the discounted passes to make 31,000 total trips since the program started.

Still, Kunkel said, “Most of the organizations believe that the need for passes will grow as we move out of the pandemic.”

The UTA Board agreed Wednesday, and said it is excited that so many agencies have been willing to participate. It said it shows that once the pandemic ends, the program could bring great benefit to those who likely need transit the most.

So, “We would like to make this a permanent program,” Kunkel said, and board members approved taking initial steps needed for that — such as completing an analysis of how much it may cost the agency, and its effect on low-income and minority populations.

When the pilot project was announced in January, UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said he has found that transportation is a common roadblock to success for low-income people, addicts, those experiencing homelessness and former convicts — groups with whom he worked as a Salt Lake City Council member, county official and as a Latter-day Saint stake president.

“Transportation is always a challenge” for them, he said then. He noted that many low-income individuals cannot afford UTA’s full fares, and do not work for companies that offer discount passes. Few have access to cars.

Those factors prevent them from taking available jobs that “are farther out on the outskirts and are challenging to get to,” Christensen said. It’s also hard for them to get to medical, school, legal or treatment appointments. He said it leads some former convicts to fall back into crime.

“As a society, we are shooting ourselves in the foot” by not solving that, he said as the program launched.

Before the pilot program, UTA had offered a few programs for those experiencing homeless, and for less of a discount, usually around 50%. The pilot program offers a 75% discount and allows partner agencies to define whom they consider as low-income in order to receive free passes.

UTA has distributed 15,000 “single-day” passes through the program, and 4,000 passes good for 30 days. Kunkel said 66% of the use so far has been for buses, 28% for TRAX and streetcar and 6% for FrontRunner commuter rail.

Partner agencies reported the 75% discount “has allowed them to cover twice as many clients with the same amount of funds,” Kunkel said, and “they say the price point is fantastic.”

UTA Board member Beth Holbrook said the Davis Education Association told her the program helped transport children in homeless families to schools around the district. “They’ve been very happy with this,” she said. “The only challenge for them is their own budgetary challenges these days.”

Overall, Christensen told program officials, “I couldn’t be more happy with the progress that you’ve made” in finding partner agencies.