George Pyle: Make UTA free to ride all the time

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of UTA's Utah Valley Express (UVX) buses makes a stop in Orem, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2018.

How not to get robbed: Don’t have any money.

That’s easy if you are not rich. If you are a government agency, particularly one that deals in vast quantities of dollar bills and quarters, it can be more of a challenge.

The Utah Transit Authority is dealing with two cases of former employees who have been charged with pocketing, between them, some $500,000 in cash and coins that they are said to have walked away with rather than pouring it into the system’s till.

Agency officials have let slip the auditors and pledge to improve their controls. Which is fine and normal. But the temptation presented by all those shiny coins might be better overcome by not having them around.

Meanwhile, on the good news side of the UTA ledger, the agency reports that its Utah Valley Express service is a big hit. The UVX has an average of more than 14,000 boardings every day — on a par with the system’s Green Line TRAX service to and from Salt Lake International Airport.

It is the latest thing in public transit, in this case serving Orem and Provo in general and Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University in particular. It looks like a big bus and runs on wheels on the street. But it is bigger and has, for much of its path, a traffic lane to itself. It goes to two really big schools that, like most universities, have too little parking and that serve students who are probably better off not owning a car.

And, oh, yeah. It’s free to ride. Thanks to a grant from the federal government to help get the system off to a good start and get people used to riding it.

All of which goes to the point I’ve been nattering on about for years. All UTA buses and trains — except, maybe, the FrontRunner commuter rail service — should be free to ride. All the time. Every day. Forever.

The point of the system is to get people where they need to go — work, school, the store, the doctor — without adding more cars to the road and more pollution to the air. As such, it is not only a benefit to the people who ride it, every day or from time to time. An extensive and efficient transit system is a benefit to people who will never rest their butt on any UTA conveyance.

We already recognize this by paying for most the system’s equipment and operation through taxes rather than fares. Varying rates of local option sales taxes are imposed throughout UTA’s six-county service area. Federal money paid for a lot of the TRAX light rail system and for other bits and pieces of the system.

Those other sources of income, in fact, leave only about 14 percent of the total cost of operation to come from the fare box, passes or other ways of charging for a ride. And, while just making the system free would might leave the outfit a bit short, there would be savings from such a switch.

No fares means no fare boxes (and no fare box robberies), no fare machines to be serviced, no ticket takers, fewer, or perhaps no, transit police officers.

Would all that add up to 14 percent? I would certainly imagine not. But it wouldn’t be nothing.

I would never call it free service, because we would pay for it through our taxes. Just as we’d pay for “free” universal health care or “free” college tuition through our taxes. But if we, as a society, would come out ahead on the deal, properly putting a value not just on cash in and cash out, but on the larger benefits to all of us, it would be worth a serious look.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, reading someone else's newspaper.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is often found on the TRAX Red Line. Or cursing it as it pulls away from the station just at the Blue Line arrives.


Twitter, @debatestate