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SALT LAKE CITY — With East High School students surrounding her Thursday afternoon, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall acknowledged it took at least a decade of planning and conversations to piece together one of the city's biggest transportation partnerships yet.
All students, faculty and staff within the Salt Lake City School District will soon have access to Utah Transit Authority passes at no additional cost through a new first-of-its-kind agreement with the agency.
"It was such a big undertaking that it took the right moment with the right group of people, and a financial commitment above and beyond what we've done before," said Mendenhall, standing next to a UTA bus parked outside of the school. "These transit passes are a big deal. It's about so much more than just expanding an already awesome school bus network. It is literally about creating pathways."
The mayor then helped hand out the first few of approximately 25,000 passes that will be delivered to the district's various schools in the coming weeks. There are about 21,000 students who will receive passes, which she points out is a little more than 10% of the city's population.
The passes cover most services like buses, TRAX and the S-Line streetcar. It doesn't include FrontRunner or ski bus service, though Carlton Christensen, the president of the UTA board of trustees, said students and staff can receive these services with a "small incremental" upgrade fee.
"This is a historic commitment being taken by Salt Lake City, as well as the Salt Lake City School District and the (Salt Lake Education Foundation)," he said. "This is truly an amazing partnership."
Melissa Ford, the president of the Salt Lake City Board of Education, said she believes the program will be important for many families, especially given Utah's high gas prices and the rising cost of living in the city. While gas prices are coming down, AAA reports that the average price is currently $4.67 per gallon in Utah, about 80 cents above the cost per gallon this time last year.
The city estimates that families spend one-fifth of their income on transportation costs. While students can already ride a school district bus to school, the program's biggest strength is to allow students to have new access to travel to extracurricular activities, an internship or a job anywhere within the UTA system on their own without dipping into family expenses.
"Free transit passes for our students and staff will be life-changing for so many," said Ford, pointing out that more than half of the students in the district come from low-income families. "It will help ease the bottom line for family budgets by decreasing the need to rely on cars and gasoline. ... Every dollar saved makes a huge difference."
The new program also has the potential to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality through lower emissions. Vehicles are considered the cause of nearly half of all emissions in the state, according to the Utah Clean Air Partnership.
Mendenhall said the city mentioned the type of partnership during previous discussions with UTA, including the city's transit master plan and Hive Pass negotiations. It finally came to fruition when the Salt Lake City Council set aside the final $100,000 needed to complete the funding for the passes with the approval of the city's 2023 fiscal year budget.
The remaining $279,000 came from the Salt Lake City Education Foundation and Salt Lake City School District, according to Kensey Kunkel, UTA's manager of business development and sales. This year's passes will last one year, though it does appear likely that the program will be extended in the future.
The agency is currently in the process of printing the remaining passes, which will be delivered to the school administrators at every school in the district in the coming weeks. Those leaders will then figure out ways to deliver a pass to every student, faculty or staff member at their school.
Kunkel added that UTA hopes to create similar partnerships with other school districts in the future, though they have not heard from other districts about it.
"We hope this expands to as many school districts as possible," she said. "(We want) to be able to give more access to these students (so they can) be able to say yes to other activities."