The free-fare zone for trains and buses in downtown Salt Lake City may be coming to the end of the line.
Free buses could disappear especially quickly because the Utah Transit Authority is asking the city to support canceling them amid worries about lost revenue and concerns that the free service may attract criminal activity and the homeless trying to keep out of bad weather.
Cancelling free TRAX trains is likely a few years away. UTA hopes to stop them when it makes a planned switch to distance-based fares that would use GPS technology to charge riders for each mile traveled. Short trips of a few blocks downtown would cost only a nominal fee under that system.
"Discussions with Salt Lake City about modification of the free-fare zone have been going on for a little over a year. We met with a number of stakeholders in the area to really understand how the free-fare zone is used and the benefits from it," said Jerry Benson, UTA's chief operating officer.
Because of such discussions, he said UTA has "taken off the table for now" eliminating free TRAX service downtown for the next couple of years, but hopes to do away with free buses soon.
Jill Remington Love, chairwoman of the city council, said the city likely would have had major objections to immediate cancelation of free TRAX service, but is less concerned about the free buses. The free-fare zone is roughly between North Temple and 500 South, and between 400 West and 200 East. It does make jogs to include routes to the Utah Capitol, the Library Station and the intermodal hub.
"I'm pleased they listened to us on TRAX," she said, noting the city has a say in any cancellation because the free-fare zone is embedded in two interlocal agreements between the city and the UTA.
David Everitt, chief of staff to Mayor Ralph Becker, said, "It is a nonstarter for the mayor to accept any reduction in free-fare zones for TRAX until an equitable distance-based fare is implemented."
As Love explained, the city believes the current flat-fare system is unfair to city residents. They are charged as much for their short trips as commuters are charged for much longer trips. "We think the transit system is designed to be a commuter system, and it doesn't really serve our citizens well who want to go to the grocery store or visit a friend," she said.
Everitt said the mayor believes that the proposal to end only free buses "is a different twist, and we're willing to look at the merits of that."
One who opposes it, however, is Bill Tibbitts, Anti-Hunger Project director for the Crossroads Urban Center, who says that ending free buses will hurt low-income people.
"There are a lot of low-income people who live in the downtown area who are disabled or have limited mobility. Now if they need to go somewhere, they can walk a block to free fare. That's very different than walking the whole distance. Even walking four or five blocks is a challenge when you have mobility issues," he said.
Benson said UTA seeks to end free buses for several reasons. One is financial. UTA makes no money on free trips, and the agency is in tight financial times. He said most cities nationally that offered free-fare zones in downtowns have canceled them because of similar concerns.
He said free buses also cause some operational problems, mostly because 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.
"That's confusing to customers, and potentially puts drivers in a difficult situation with those folks who have already consumed the service and choose not to pay," Benson said.
He added it also creates security concerns. "It also allows people to use it as a system for something other than to get from one place to another. … It may be people just looking for shelter from the weather. It can be people who are using the system to do illegal things, drug dealing, etc."
Benson said that moving to a distance-based fare system and possibly doing away with the free-fare zone for TRAX trains is "probably a couple of years away."
He said the main obstacle is that UTA has to develop its own technology to allow it. "It's not something that anyone has done, so we have to build it and it has many, many technical components" that still must be worked out.
UTA recently finished a study about how to design fee structures in such a system, and presented some of the findings to UTA board members at committee meetings they held on Wednesday.
It envisions a system where almost all riders will pay electronically, including using "contactless" credit or debit cards or smart cards sold at outlets or vending machines. GPS systems will measure how far riders travel "as the crow flies" as they tap on and off as they enter and exit buses. The system will deduct a fee per mile.
That system would no longer allow monthly passes. UTA hopes that it could continue discounts for seniors and others who now receive them.
A maximum fee would be created, and no rider would pay more no matter how far he or she traveled. Cash payments would likely still be allowed, but the maximum fee would be charged.
Free-fare zone farewell?
UTA passengers for years have been able to ride free on TRAX trains and buses in downtown Salt Lake City. But the free-fare zone may be disappearing, with free bus service ending soon and TRAX free service likely to discontinue in a few years when the transit agency switches to a new distance-based fare system.