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Even when limited to 140 characters in a "Twitter chat," Utahns waxed eloquent Tuesday in questioning the Utah Transit Authority's proposal to end its free fare zone for buses in downtown Salt Lake City — despite 85 years remaining on a 100-year contract for the service.

Shad West asked why UTA officials cannot "simply honor their contract with the city? They sound like professional athletes who complain about their deals."

"If UTA can't fund operations with existing revenue, why are you lobbying for more expansion $ from Feds?" tweeted Scott McIntyre.

The UTA used the chat to insist that eliminating the service for buses — while the free fare zone for TRAX would continue — is not about saving money, but is intended to improve safety and operations.

When asked how eliminating free-fares could improve safety, the UTA tweeted, "20% of the people riding were using the system for purposes other than transit. Numerous incidents of criminal behavior."

It added in another tweet, "Cutting the bus free fare zone would cut down on fare related confrontations." When outbound buses board in the free-fare zone, passengers do not pay until they exit. That also prevents using rear doors on outbound trips.

The UTA added that while revenue is not its top concern, the change would still increase it. "Unfortunately, not all passengers pay upon exiting, either accidentally or on purpose," the agency said.

It added that as UTA moves toward a distance-based system — where fares vary according to how far passengers travel — having one system of when passengers pay with "tap-on, tap-off" cards would be a benefit.

One tweeter asked what will happen to transit passes when it moves to that system. UTA replied, "They will be pay per tap" with tap-on, tap-off cards.

UTA has previously said it is considering eliminating all passes when it goes to distance-based fares, but has said no final decision has been made. Several asked what will happen to low-income people without the free-fare zone. UTA responded, "We offer discounts to homeless service providers and through the state, there are many transit resources for those in need."

UTA also stressed that it is not trying to break its contract with Salt Lake City, but to amend it and is negotiating what it might provide in return.

"We're not canceling a contract, amending an issue that isn't working," UTA tweeted. But David Self Newlin responded, "Semantics. You said you'd provide a [free-fare zone] for 100 yrs and now you don't want to. Call it an amendment, but we call it breaking."

Public hearing on free-fare zone

I The Utah Transit Authority plans a public hearing about proposals to eliminate its free fare zone for buses on Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at its headquarters, 669 W. 200 South, in Salt Lake City.

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