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SALT LAKE CITY — Prompted by the heavy, grey smog that blanketed the Wasatch Front last week, city and county officials have scraped together $70,000 so commuters can take public transit for free on Friday.
"All day this Friday, your ride is on us," Salt Lake City Council Chairman Stan Penfold said.
Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and Utah Transit Authority leaders announced Tuesday the launch of "Free Fare Friday," a one-day pilot event this week when anyone in UTA's six-county service area — from Brigham City to Payson and from Tooele to Park City — can ride buses, TRAX and FrontRunner for free.
City and county leaders hope the free fare day will act as a pilot project that could perhaps prompt discussions with other stakeholders — including the state or other cities and counties — to fund free fares on all future red air days.
Penfold, who was disgusted by last week's air conditions, joked that UTA and Salt Lake County leaders were probably "very bruised from all the arm-twisting" as he helped to organize the "Free Fare Friday" over the past week.
In order to cover the $70,000 cost one day of fares, the Salt Lake City Council agreed to use $27,500 out of its office's community outreach, education and promotion budget, while Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams took $27,500 out of his office's discretionary fund. UTA agreed to absorb the remaining $15,000.
“One of the most frequent questions I’m asked — and one I’m sure most other elected officials hear every day — is, ‘Why can’t the buses and trains be free to ride on red air days?’” Penfold said.
“In my opinion, there’s no reason we can’t reduce or eliminate fares to get cars off the road, help improve air quality during inversions and prevent red air days from happening in the first place, so why not try?”
All day Friday, bus drivers will be instructed not to accept fares and signs will be posted at rail stations indicating that no fares are required. UTA riders with electronic passes or those who have a Farepay card will not need to “tap on” and “tap off” when boarding a bus or train, and riders who have purchased tickets on UTA’s mobile ticketing app won't need to purchase a ticket.
UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson said free fare on red air days "is a great idea and we'd love to make it happen," but since UTA uses fare revenue to pay for service "it's hard for us to do it on our own."
"But efforts like this, though, show when there's a will there's a way," Benson said. "All of us here today know that underwriting fares for just one day won't fix bad air, but it's an important gesture that highlights the issue and ways that we can address it. It's one we'd like to see emulated by others."
Penfold and McAdams said partnerships with the state and other cities in Salt Lake County, Davis County and Utah County could be explored to pool funds to pay for transit fares on future red air days.
"It's going to require all of us to truly be committed to finding new ways to solve our air quality concerns," Penfold said. "We must challenge everyone. We must challenge our state government and local governments, our businesses, our non-profits, our residents and others to step up."
McAdams acknowledged one day of free fare won't improve air quality overnight, but he hopes it will motivate others to be aware and find ways to reduce pollution.
"We hope this free fare day will entice people to figure out the train schedules, figure out how to get out of their car and use transit — that this will be a catalyst for them to start to change behavior and find out that it's actually pretty easy and pretty pleasant to do," McAdams said. "It just takes that first try."
About 48 percent of the Wasatch Front's winter pollutants come from automobile tailpipes, said Donna Kemp Spangler, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Free transit on red air days would make a "significant" impact on the Salt Lake Valley's pollution if it motivates commuters to take the train or bus, Spangler said.
"Anytime you can encourage somebody to take transit and leave their car at home, that's one less car on the road and that's going to make a difference," she said.