Free fare forever? Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says he's open to the idea for public transportation

A UTA Trax train travels through Sandy on March 10. Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he's open to making public transit free in the future with the state picking up the fare tab.

A UTA Trax train travels through Sandy on March 10. Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he's open to making public transit free in the future with the state picking up the fare tab. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Transit Authority's "Free Fare February" promotion boosted ridership by 16% and resulted in the public transportation system's busiest month since the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Those numbers were, as Gov. Spencer Cox put it, "very positive." And given current or ongoing issues regarding gas prices and air quality, he said Thursday that he's open to the idea of making it permanent.

"We would like to see free fares in every transit district across the state, and the state would fund that for a period of time — three months, six months, something like that," Cox said, during his monthly briefing with news outlets.

UTA averaged 105,992 weekday riders during the month with free fares, besting the previous high since the beginning of the pandemic of 101,143 riders set in September 2021. September is statistically the agency's best month, according to the five years of available data.

The agency reported over 102,500 average weekday riders in March. Last month is also when gas prices started to skyrocket from the economic fallout of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. ban on Russian oil and gas imports. The average price for a gallon of gas in Utah rose to $4.50, according to AAA data obtained Thursday; however, it's jumped to as much as $4.90 per gallon in Piute County.

Cox sees public transit not only as a tool for people to avoid those costs, he argues it can also help reduce the demand at the pump, and ultimately help reduce its staggering cost. It also has environmental benefits.

"The more people ride transit, the less pollution that's coming from cars as we're entering that ozone season in the state," the governor said.

If it produces more ridership growth in the future, then it can be expanded to reach more people.

It would be up to the Utah Legislature for the state to pick up transit fare tabs unless there were funds sitting somewhere that could be used for that purpose, Cox added. He estimated the cost to be somewhere in the range of $3 million per month for every transit district, which includes districts in St. George, Logan and Summit County.

UTA collected about $28.7 million from fares last year; however, it did collect over $50 million on a regular basis prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2019 UTA document listed fares as accounting for about one-tenth of the agency's total revenue sources.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, introduced a bill during the legislative session earlier this year that called for free fares for all large transit agencies like UTA but the bill died in a House Revenue and Taxation Committee meeting.

Cox said there have been discussions about holding a special legislative session, but one has not yet been called. Otherwise, it's an issue that may have to wait for the 2023 session.

"It's an idea worth exploring," he added. "It's one thing to do it for a month ... I think something like this would give us better data, more data and help us understand transit patterns, so we can help."

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Utah transportationState of UtahUtah LegislatureUtahPolitics
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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