It’s not a new idea. A bill sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, was filed in the 2022 legislative session. It derailed without much debate.
But Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who was a catalyst for “free fare February,” a month-long pilot program last year, mentioned the governor’s proposal in her annual state of the city address last week. “That’s a huge development for the state of Utah,” Mendenhall said. “Someday we will have free fare forever.”
Well … don’t cut up those transit passes, yet.
The governor’s budget assumes UTA’s “fare subsidy partners,” organizations such as the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University, which provide free passes to their students, and large private employers who offer transit passes to their employees, would continue paying to cover another $13.1 million.
But, really, why would they do that?
“It took a lot of scrambling on our part and a lot of concessions from some of our large passholders,” UTA Board Chairman Carleton Christensen told me last week, referring to how the authority funded last February’s free-fare promotion.
It could be that much harder to convince all the partners to pay for a whole year of subsidies, when their students and employees could get free rides, anyway.
Free transit fares have become the cause du jour in many large American cities. A lot of them started pilot programs during the pandemic, when many people worked from home and few wanted to risk sitting across from an infected person on a bus or train.
But now, Washington, D.C., is considering making its buses free (Metro trains still would require fares). Denver, Boston and San Francisco are in various stages of doing the same. Kansas City has had free buses since 2019.
Critics say a free-fare plan would increase maintenance costs as more people ride. Homeless riders might stay on buses and trains all day long, leading to confrontations with other drivers. The executive director of a group representing small transit agencies told the Washington Post these “non-destination riders,” as they’re called, have led some small transit companies to opt out of free fares.
Christensen is quick to dismiss these concerns. In Utah last February, there were fewer calls to police during the free-fare period than in normal months, he said. In fact, a lot of altercations involve disputes between bus drivers and riders over the payment of fares, and those would disappear if no one had to pay.
Meanwhile, ridership was up that month. Christensen said a study predicted a 38% increase in riders should fares become free, and about 20% of those who rode in February had never ridden UTA before.
UTA doesn’t need the Legislature’s approval to offer free fares, but it does need lawmakers’ approval to find another way to make up for the money it would lose.
That’s not likely to come.
Christensen said the issue comes down to philosophy.
“It kind of depends on how you look at fares,” he said. “If you looked at fares solely as revenue collections and making the user, in essence, pay for that, philosophically it is probably a difficult thing for somebody to accept, and I think that’s probably reflected in the Legislature’s refusal to entertain the governor’s proposal.”
However, look at transit as a service the government provides in order to keep from continuing to build and expand roads and to keep cars from polluting the air and, well, you get a different perspective.
Roads are a subsidy for cars. They don’t, contrary to what some may think, pay for themselves. “That’s the biggest farce,” Christensen said, noting that highways are funded by everything from stormwater fees and snow removal fees to sales taxes. “The fuel tax doesn’t even cover the maintenance.”
“To not think that having a road infrastructure or a rail infrastructure doesn’t have a broader community cost is a little naive.”
Still, Christensen doesn’t believe UTA will scrap its fares any time soon, except for special occasions. It will do so Feb. 12-21 for the NBA All Star game, and anyone with a valid airline boarding pass can ride free the entire month. It is, he said, not a completely dead issue, even if a permanent fare-free ride isn’t on the horizon.
Horizons don’t last forever, though. The average age of a UTA rider is 34. Young people seem more likely to ride than the older folks. Maybe in a generation or two, things will change.