The Utah Transit Authority says it is "asking" for the help of its monthly pass holders for a two-month research project.
But riders may feel more like conscripts because they face the prospect of a $157 fine if they forget to "tap on" or "tap off" new electronic passes as they board and exit buses and trains. And, as a kicker, the research is to help develop a new fare system that may eventually eliminate discount monthly passes.
"There have been a few dozen complaints," UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said Tuesday.
He said UTA issued new passes this month with an embedded computer chip that users must "tap on" e-readers when beginning a trip and then "tap off" as they exit. In the past, monthly pass holders could simply flash their cards to bus drivers or UTA police officers checking for tickets on trains.
Similar "tap on, tap off" cards have been used for annual passes issued by UTA for university students or workers of large employers, such as the LDS Church.
Carpenter said tapping on and off "provides us with full trip data. We can see where the riders boarded the system, where they transferred and where they exited. It's very useful data in helping our planners plan more direct routes … and helps us see the movement through our system."
He said UTA wanted to have more expanded data for two months "because we don't want to base all of our decisions just on the movement of university students and people who work for large employers."
But if someone fails to tap on or off, UTA police checking with hand-held scanners can fine them up to two times the cost of a monthly pass $157 for a first offense and up to $304 for subsequent violations. It is essentially the same penalty as for riding without buying a ticket.
"We expect to be lenient. ... We're going to educate rather than penalize for the first few days," Carpenter said. "But we are going to encourage people to use it, simply because we really do need that data in order to make decisions that will benefit them later on."
But one purpose of the study could lead to an end of discount monthly passes.
Carpenter said the stats also are needed "because we are starting to do research on a distance-based fare," a system that would charge based on how far passengers travel instead of the same flat fee to travel anywhere in the system.
UTA staff have said in planning meetings that when such a system is implemented in a few years, it would likely eliminate discount monthly passes and force everyone to pay according to distance traveled part of an effort to boost revenue from riders. Currently, 20 percent of UTA revenue comes from fares and about 80 percent comes from sales taxes.
But Carpenter said no such decisions have been made.
"We are still very early in the information-gathering stage. We haven't even gone out to the public for general input yet," he said. "Over the next couple of months, we're going to start going out and have some open houses to find out what people would like to see in a distance-based fare system."
But, he added, "It's likely that a monthly pass as it exists today would go away and be replaced by some other product, maybe a discount for frequent riders or other potential benefits for those who regularly use the system. That's something we'll be looking to find out from our riders.
"But ideally, they'll be paying for the service that they consume. So if they are only traveling a few blocks, they will pay much less than they would pay if they are traveling 20 miles."
Carpenter says UTA realizes that change is uncomfortable and has generated a few dozen complaints. "We hope that people will comply with this so that we can get the data we need to create a better fare system for them in the future."