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The Utah Transit Authority wants to end its free-fare zone in downtown Salt Lake City for buses — but not for TRAX — as quickly as in a few weeks or months.

UTA previously talked of doing that years in the future when it moves to a planned distance-based fare system, because short trips then would have only nominal fees. But UTA officials told its Planning and Development Committee on Wednesday that it will ask Salt Lake City to approve ending free buses as soon as possible.

Jerry Benson, UTA's chief operating officer, said because of interlocal agreements with the city, UTA cannot end the free-fare zone on its own. It requires permission from the City Council.

Benson said the move would save UTA money. It is facing tight times and has been under scrutiny by the Legislature for being on a financial tightrope.

He said it would also bring operating benefits. Currently, people who board within the free-fare zone do not pay fares (required once they leave the zone) until they exit the bus — while people traveling to downtown pay fares as they board buses. Benson said that confuses customers, and makes it difficult to handle outbound passengers who refuse to pay.

Benson said UTA has been negotiating the possible end of the free-fare zone with many concerned groups for years and feels it has enough support to move forward now to end it for buses. But business and other groups have opposed removing free fare for TRAX, used by shoppers and others to move around downtown.

City Councilman Carlton Christensen says he's open to ending free fare for buses, noting UTA seems to have "a lot of fare-compliance issues on the buses." He adds, "As long as rail stays as free fare, I'm OK with it."

Councilman Kyle LaMalfa says he wants to review the economics of the move before taking a hard stand. "I look forward to hearing UTA's case," he said. He adds that he has a fondness for the free-fare zone. "It's an asset for the city. It's awesome."

Also concerned about the proposal is Bill Tibbitts, Anti-Hunger Project director for the Crossroads Urban Center, who said it could hurt low-income people and those with limited mobility who depend on it. "What has changed? Why are they doing this now? The free fare zone has operated for years," he said.

He added that the free-fare zone was expanded in recent years as part of a deal with the city for a new North Temple viaduct. "That bridge isn't even completed before UTA is trying to get out of part of its bargain."

The free-fare zone is roughly between North Temple and 500 South, and between 400 West and 200 East. It makes jogs currently to include routes to the Utah Capitol, the Library Station and the intermodal hub.

Benson said no decisions have been made about ending the free-fare zone for TRAX when UTA moves to a distance-based fare system. He said removing it would also require City Council approval because of interlocal agreements.

UTA envisions a system someday where GPS systems will measure how far riders travel "as the crow flies" as they tap on and off with electronic cards as they enter and exit buses. The system will deduct a fee per mile, instead of a flat fee charged now for trips of any length. UTA says such a system is still a few years away.

But UTA board member Keith Bartholomew said, "As we move toward distance-based fares, the need of free fare is reduced or eliminated," because short trips would cost little. "It kind of makes a reduced fare zone for anyone doing short hops, regionalizing the benefit."

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