If the Salt Lake City Council decides to give up the free-fare zone for UTA buses downtown, it should get something in return. That something should be direct TRAX service from downtown to the university and greater frequency on city bus routes.
The Achilles heel of the Utah Transit Authority system is the long time between buses. That is compounded when TRAX and bus schedules do not synchronize. Nothing is more frustrating for a passenger than to arrive on a train and see his connecting bus driving away from the stop. If the wait for the next bus is 30 minutes, that's a big chunk of time out of a commuter's life. If the next bus is not scheduled for two hours, the commuter is unlikely to remain a UTA customer.
One reason that TRAX trains are popular is that the time between trains is 15 minutes on weekdays. If you miss a train, that can be annoying, but you know another is coming soon. Not so with buses.
In fact, UTA service in the city has deteriorated consistently over time. The last major reorganization of bus routes cut service citywide in order to deploy more buses to the hinterlands. Many city patrons protested, and they won some concessions, but overall, service still declined.
When UTA inaugurated the Mid-Jordan and West Valley City TRAX lines last year, it added insult to injury by discontinuing direct service on the University line between downtown and the university. Since that time, downtown commuters have had to change trains at the Courthouse station, and the schedules rarely are in sync.
It's no wonder, then, that the Downtown Alliance wants direct TRAX service to the university restored if UTA insists on ending the free-fare zone for buses downtown.
In 1996, a UTA contract promised the city a free-fare zone downtown for 100 years. Now, however, the agency says it can no longer afford the $100,000 in lost revenues due to free bus fares. It proposes to end the zone in August, but retain the TRAX free-fare zone, which costs the agency an estimated $900,000 a year. But city attorneys say the city must get something in return if the free-fare zone for buses ends.
Another proposal for a trade-off would be a low-fare circulator route around the downtown periphery. That makes the least sense to us. Downtown already has a circulator in TRAX.
We do support the agency's proposed move to distance-based fares. That would give city riders a break because their trips are shorter.
But long term, the system will never work well until bus frequency improves.