UTA’s ‘Free Fare February’ reduced air pollution, boosted public transit ridership

‘About 68 tons of pollution was kept out of the air,’ according to UTA Board Trustee Jeff Acerson.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People wear masks as they wait for Trax train on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020.

Ridership boomed during the Utah Transit Authority’s pilot program, “Free Fare February,” the effort to make public transportation more accessible and the air quality improved.

That’s according to a final report released by UTA this week about the ridership and environmental outcomes of the monthlong initiative.

“About 68 tons of pollution was kept out of the air, which is about a 21% improvement in pollution savings compared to the previous month,” said UTA Board Trustee Jeff Acerson, who represents Tooele and Utah counties. “That’s why transit is such a critical piece of that because you’re getting more people on a [transit] system rather than more cars on the highways.”

The report noted that “more people riding transit equates to fewer car trips taken and less production of air pollution.”

About 95% of riders said they were aware of the free rides that month, according to a survey of more than 5,000 travelers. Nearly a quarter of travelers surveyed said they were commuting to work compared to 20.8% of riders who said they were riding to seek entertainment; 16.2% of riders who said they were visiting family and friends; 14.9% of riders who said they were running errands; and 13% who said they were traveling to school and 6.6% who said they were going to health care visits.

Overall, weekday ridership increased by 16% and Saturday ridership rose by 58.1% when compared to January figures. The largest increase in ridership was seen in FrontRunners on Saturdays, where usage increased by 202% when compared to last month.

Acerson noted that historically high gas prices could also force people to ditch their cars and ride public transit instead.

To make fares free during February, UTA sought to raise approximately $2.4 million. About $1.1 million was sponsored by organizations like the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Mountainland Association of Governments, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the Utah Division of Air Quality.

During the 2022 legislative session, state Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, introduced a bill that would allow the Utah Transit Authority to offer free rides to residents. The bill, which failed to pass, would have cost about $50 million a year to fund, according to a fiscal analysis of the legislation.

“I think the study helps us collect data that allows leaders, the Legislature and us as an organization to see how we can best meet the needs of transportation and the state of Utah and deal with the quality of air that is critical for citizens,” Acerson said.

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