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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's top public transit agency already offers some no-fare days during select days when air quality is low.
There are also no fares charged within downtown Salt Lake City, and the upcoming Ogden Express rapid bus system will have no fares for the first three years of its operation.
But one Utah lawmaker argues that's not enough. It's why he is proposing a bill that would make it illegal for any "large public transit district," like the Utah Transit Authority, to charge fares for public transit service, arguing that a no-fare system would be beneficial to health, equality and economic development.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, the bill's sponsor, added that such a measure could increase public transit ridership while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and congestion on the state's busy roadways.
"Almost every place in the world that has reduced fares significantly or gotten rid of them at some point or some place has seen increases of ridership," he told KSL.com. "Don't we want people to ride UTA?"
Briscoe on Monday submitted HB164 to the growing list of bills to be discussed during the 2022 legislative session now underway. The bill, which was sent to the House Rules Committee on Tuesday, targets UTA fares. It's not written to impact some of the state's smaller transit services like SunTran in St. George — and some of those, like the Cache Valley Transit District in Logan, are already free.
The representative previously sponsored legislation that set up a fund that paid for UTA fares on certain "mandatory action days," or when the Wasatch Front air quality is at its worst. There's been an increase in ridership every time that's been used since, which he said suggests no fares would likely lead to more people using public transit than ever before.
So how much would it cost UTA to make it free? The answer ranges by quite a bit because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an email Briscoe provided KSL.com, UTA officials said they estimate they collected $28.7 million in fare revenue last year. They are still sifting through November and December figures to confirm the 2021 revenue, per the email.
Nearly two-thirds of that revenue comes from "contract fare," which is what educational institutions, corporations and other entities pay to cover the cost of fares for students or employees. The remaining third comes from "public fare," such as an individual who pays the standard $2.50 to ride the bus or TRAX.
Of course, UTA has dealt with ongoing ridership declines that date back to when the COVID-19 first led to public shutdowns in March 2020. It's rebounded some since then but ridership data is still nowhere near where it was before the pandemic. There were 950,000 average weekday boardings in 2021 across UTA's commuter rail, light rail, bus and other services last year — a 48% decline from 2019 figures, according to UTA ridership data.
If transit service does return to pre-pandemic levels, revenue is much different. A 2019 UTA document listed fare revenues bouncing between $50 million and $53 million in the years before COVID-19 arrived.
It would be up to the state to fill in that gap, but Briscoe contends that it's worth it.
He argues it offers an alternative to personal vehicles that overcrowd the state's roads and contribute to about half of the pollution in the region. More ridership can result in reduced traffic times and improved air quality. Given the state's projected growth, public transit will likely also play a bigger role especially as it becomes more difficult to add roads in the region.
It would also make transportation access easier for low-income Utahns, resulting in greater economic opportunity. With the state currently working to add affordable economic development around public transit infrastructure, like FrontRunner, waiving fares for transit service would help that cause.
"We have a deficit of mobility because some people don't get around as often, can't get around as easily. They lack opportunity," he said. "They lack the opportunity to work, lack opportunity to get essential services and this will help."
Briscoe said the cost of new road infrastructure for personal vehicles far exceeds the cost the state spends on public transportation, 20 to 1 at times. Investing in alternatives beyond personal vehicle traffic would go toward these issues.
"We can afford this," he said. "We've spent $50 million on all kinds of things that, to me, are kind of crazy. This is not crazy."
These reasons are also why there has been a growing push nationwide to waive public transit fares. Waiving fares has increased ridership elsewhere. CNBC reported in 2020 that Olympia, Washington, saw an increase of 20% ridership in the first month after testing out the removal of fares.
Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kanas City, Missouri, which ditched fares in 2019, also told the outlet that removing these fees gave residents access to "opportunities for employment and education — which lead to better quality of life and, therefore, better health for our community."
But the idea of removing fares also has its critics. David Bragdon, the executive director TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation aimed at improving public transportation, argued last year in a forum on the topic hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School, that waiving fares may result in worse service since a majority of fare revenue in the country's largest cities go toward service improvements.
"If you tell a transit agency you're going to take that revenue away, I can guarantee there is one thing that they can do: cut service," he said.
The 2019 UTA document indicates that fares accounted for about 10% of total revenue sources that are then spent toward service and jobs. The report indicated that the agency relies more on funds that come from sales tax sources and federal funding than fares — although it's unclear if that's still the case.
In a statement to KSL.com, a UTA spokesperson said the agency is working to provide information to the legislature but that's about it.
"The organization does not have a position on this proposed legislation and is not commenting at this time," the statement ended.
The bill will have to pass the House Rules Committee, as well as both chambers of the legislature by March 4 before it can go into effect.