UTA data show a spike in ridership during Free Fare Days

UTA data from a pair of free fare days last February 28-March 1 show the commuting public may be willing to change its behavior if the price is right.

A new pilot program should tell whether that’s really the case.

The Utah Legislature agreed to spend more money in an attempt to get people who drive to take public transit when air quality is approaching dangerous levels. Early results show commuters may be.

Ridership during the 2019 experiment spiked 14% on Trax, 46% on FrontRunner and 10% on buses. That last number is significant. During UTA’s only other free fare day, in December 2017, bus ridership barely saw a blip.

Lawmakers this year agreed to boost the size of the program.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City (25), drove HB 353, the Reduction of Single Occupancy Vehicle Trips Pilot Program, which would have sent $1.2 million to fund more free fare days.

Ultimately, the Legislature funded just over $500,000, which will cover seven free fare days for the 2019-20 inversion season. The bill also pays for a three-year pilot.

A key part of the bill is that the fund can receive private donations. Briscoe is hopeful local corporations and governments, which have a stake in local air quality, will step up to expand the number of free fare days available this winter.

UTA loses $70,000 per weekday when it doesn’t collect fares. This year’s days were sponsored by a coalition of local governments (Davis and Salt Lake counties and Salt Lake City), as well as Intermountain Healthcare.

Trax on Main Street and 300 South, downtown Salt Lake City. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Increasing ridership comes with the promise of better air quality. HB 353 is designed to offer free fare days in advance of inversions so that car commuters can plan to work from home, carpool, or take transit.

“To reduce the number of red air days, we need action on orange and yellow days,” Briscoe said.

Under the program, Utah’s Division of Air Quality will analyze meteorological information and air quality data to determine when to implement the free fare days. The agency is currently in talks with UTA about the details of the process.

UTA’s pollution reduction figures from this year’s free fare days are promising. Compared to a regular day of ridership, the two free days saved over 2.5 tons of the seven “criteria pollutants” and more than 80 tons of greenhouse gas each day.

Greenhouse gas emissions avoided during Free Fare Days in 2019. Image courtesy UTA.

With such potential, making UTA permanently free-fare is occasionally part of the conversation. Farebox revenue makes up approximately 18% of total operating expenses and 12.5% of total revenue. Trains and buses run on average at only 25% of capacity, according to UTA’s planning department.

While there is space on vehicles for more passengers, the support functions for riders — trip planning, security, phone operators — are currently understaffed to handle a significant increase in riders.

The pilot program should provide valuable answers on UTA’s ability to handle increased ridership, as well as commuters’ appetite to change behavior based on cost and air quality.

Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.