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SALT LAKE CITY — A little over a month ago, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall approached Utah's largest public transportation service with an idea.
She wanted to know if it was possible that Utah Transit Authority could waive fare costs in Salt Lake City in February. Carlton Christensen, the chairman of the UTA Board of Trustees, gave her an open-ended response.
"He said maybe we could," Mendenhall recalled.
That question snowballed from there, as UTA looked into the matter further. It found other local governments, partner agencies and private businesses interested in the idea, leading to a big announcement Tuesday.
UTA is waiving all public transit fares in February, not just for Salt Lake City, but the entire system.
The agency said riders will not have to pay a fare for any of its services — from buses, trains and light rail, to its ski bus, paratransit and microtransit options — beginning next Tuesday and continuing throughout the rest of the month. The typical cost of a normal bus or TRAX ride is $2.50.
"We've never done this before," Mendenhall added. "This is a brand new experience for Salt Lake City and for the state of Utah. ... This is an incredible opportunity."
There are several reasons behind why Mendenhall and other government leaders pushed for a fare-less February, such as affordability. Studies have found that about one-fifth of the average Utah household budget goes toward transportation, such as the cost of owning a car, having insurance and then other components, such as the price of gas, the mayor said.
Air quality is another major reason behind the idea. It's not uncommon to look out toward Utah's majestic mountains in January and February only to find them hidden in smog during an inversion.
That wasn't the case Tuesday, because a storm came through overnight, helping clear out pollution trapped under the most recent inversion. As the cold wind blew outside the Utah Capitol during a press briefing on Tuesday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said the state can't just rely on storms to save the Wasatch Front from bad air quality days.
Public transit is another solution. It helps reduce the number of vehicles on the roadway, which means it takes longer for air quality to worsen in an inversion.
In order to make our future work, we're going to need to embrace transit.
–Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini
UTA executives also contend that public transit offers much, much more to Utah.
"Transit is on the move along the Wasatch Front, and throughout the state of Utah," Christensen said. "It's poised to have a great impact on our access to opportunities, economic development, to jobs, entertainment activities, our air and quality of life."
UTA's announcement comes a week after Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, introduced a bill that would make riding UTA free, permanently. A new fiscal note published by legislative staff this week found that such an idea wouldn't impact Utah fiscally, but would cost UTA $40 million to $50 million in revenue, annually, while only reducing operation costs by about $3 million.
Briscoe told KSL.com that air quality and affordability were two of the main reasons behind his plan.
While it's unclear how far that bill would go, other local government leaders say public transportation is critical to the Wasatch Front's infrastructure moving forward. UTA didn't disclose how much each government entity paid for the February program, but added that the Salt Lake City Council pledged to pay up to $50,000 as a part of the initiative.
"In order for us to solve the problems we face with additional population growth, additional congestion on our roads, we need transit," said Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, who also serves as chairman of the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
But for transit to be the answer, he adds, people need to actually use it.
According to UTA ridership data, there were about 160,000 average weekday boardings across all of the agency's transportation options during February, annually, between 2017 and 2020. Ridership has yet to recover since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and ridership fell to a little over 68,000 in February 2021.
With fares set to be waived for a full month, Silvestrini and other Utah government leaders hope that people will give public transportation a chance.
"We all need to try to ride it," he said. "And I'm glad this initiative for a fare-less February will make people like me and you fearless in February, so we can venture out on transit. ... In order to make our future work, we're going to need to embrace transit."