Low-income people and frequent UTA riders could soon receive big fare discounts

Senior citizens already enjoy a 50% discount on Utah Transit Authority buses and trains. So do youth, and qualified people with disabilities. Now, UTA is planning a pilot project that would extend that half-off discount to all low-income people.

It would go to those who earn less than 150% of the federal poverty level. Currently, that’s $39,300 a year for a family of four or $19,140 for an individual. They would need to apply online, with proof of income from such things as pay stubs or tax forms, to get an electronic fare card allowing the discount.

Some frequent transit riders, regardless of income, also could see some nifty discounts.

UTA is about to launch a separate pilot project, at first with just a small number of volunteers, where once passengers take enough rides, their electronic fare cards would automatically convert into day, weekly or monthly passes — and give them the best deal possible.

For example, once they take two rides in a day, their card would become a daily pass offering free rides the rest of the day. Once they ride for four days in a week, it would become a weekly pass that would give free rides for the other three days. A similar conversion to a monthly pass could occur after 34 paid trips in a month.

“Benefits, in addition to rewarding our frequent riders, include that it also eliminates the upfront cash burden required for a monthly pass — and sometimes that limits our riders,” said UTA Fares Director Monica Morton. Obtaining a weekly or month pass could be done on a pay-as-you-go basis on cards that could be reloaded with money anytime.

“Another benefit is there’s no need to figure out the fare products that give the best possible fare,” she added. “There’s no need to guess the number of trips that you’ll make in a month to see if you’ll benefit from a discount for a monthly pass. All of this is done automatically.”

The UTA Board this week gave staff a green light to proceed with both pilot projects. They are expected to launch in the first quarter of next year, and last for six months. Exact details of the programs are still fluid. If tests succeed, the programs could become permanent.

While UTA already has several discount programs that aim to help the poor, Morton said they tend to miss the working poor and others not receiving government services.

For example, UTA has a separate pilot program that sells passes to social service agencies, school districts and others at a 75% discount if they give them to low-income clients for free. Those agencies determine who they consider to be low-inome. But many low-income people are not served by such agencies, Morton said.

“This pilot will definitely give us an opportunity to provide immediate assistance to low-wage workers, especially as we try to support economic recovery during COVID-19,” she said.

“I like it a lot,” UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said, adding that transportation often is an obstacle for the poor to find jobs, health care and other services.

“Actually, if I’m giving a discount away to somebody, I’d rather have it be this population base,” he said.

UTA Board member Beth Holbrook agreed. “This is definitely the direction we want to be going and making sure that we’re getting the people who really need to have that transportation access available to them.”

But newly appointed board member Jeff Acerson said it may be even wiser to “just offer free ridership for a month to everybody,” and measure how free-fare affects ridership as well as reaching the low-income.

Morton said obtaining demographic data in that case would be difficult without the use of electronic fare cards, but she said she will look at the option.

Fares have always provided a relatively small portion of overall UTA revenue — usually 11% to 12% — but UTA projects that they will generate only 5.8% of the total in 2021 as the pandemic continues. The lion’s share of UTA revenue comes from sales tax, which is projected to provide 65.9% of it next year.

For the pilot program to automatically convert fare cards into passes when enough trips are taken, Morton said UTA developed the technology itself. She said she wants to test the program initially with a small group of volunteers to ensure that it works properly, then expand it if it does.

She said it would also fit in well with recently adopted UTA goals to make its fare system “simple, easy, convenient and equitable.”