Consider three recent events:
— The Point of the Mountain Commission’s Nov. 28 report on the future of the Sandy-Lehi area included a scenario that relied on free transit fare to get high enough ridership to reduce gridlock and air pollution.
— Salt Lake City’s new master plan released this week includes a commitment to reduce Utah Transit Authority fares: ” ... work with UTA to determine next steps for establishing more affordable fare options for trips within Salt Lake City.”
— UTA, Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University announced a plan Thursday to give free bus passes to all students and employees at both schools (about 100,000 people). The passes are not really “free,” in the sense that both schools will pay UTA some lump sum, but they are free to the students and employees, which means we should see transit use in Utah County jump considerably.
Putting all these things together, a pattern emerges: If we’re serious about increasing transit ridership (which has been stagnant in recent years), we need to look harder at lowering fares. Fares are only about 15 percent of UTA’s revenue, so lowering or even eliminating them is realistic to consider. Taxpayers are already on the hook for 85 percent, so mass transit will never survive on fares.
In the case of UVU, a state-owned institution, the state just decided to pick up the rest of the fare tab. UVU follows the University of Utah. The U. has been paying UTA and giving its students and employees free passes for years, and more than a third of them use mass transit. By comparison, less than four percent of the total Salt Lake County population uses UTA.
To be sure, it’s not practical to think UTA can just pull out the fare boxes. The transit agency’s finances are in shambles these days, with 30 percent of its revenue going to pay debt. But as state leaders reassess and reorganize both the funding and the governance of mass transit, the advantages of reduced or free fares deserve a serious look. Smaller transit systems in Park City and Cache Valley are already free.
Why should people get a free ride? It’s a fair question, and the answer is that the rest of us would be getting something back in return: less crowded roads, lower road costs and less air pollution.
We’re already most of the way there, and the universities are showing us how to finish the trip.