By George chapman
Salt Lake City has been asked by the Utah Transit Authority to eliminate the free-fare zone for buses downtown. UTA says that it is losing $100,000 a year on the free-fare buses downtown and $900,000 a year on free light rail.
UTA's request does not include eliminating the free-fare TRAX zone.
Salt Lake City is in a position to negotiate with UTA to lower fares in some areas and increase ridership in the capital.
Transit authority officials point to a study by Booz Allen Hamilton of mass transit systems, mostly in Europe, that showed that cutting fares by 50 percent will increase ridership by only 15 percent. But some areas in the United States have increased ridership with fare reductions.
Austin achieved 80 percent gains in ridership during a 1989-90 free fare period. The Washington, D.C., area has also been successful in increasing ridership during bad air days with reduced fares.
Mass transit use in the United States is different from Europe in several important ways. We have been encouraging use of automobiles for over 60 years. Our gasoline prices are about half of what Europe's gasoline costs. And most important, we can buy an old car for several hundred dollars that may pollute 100 times more than newer cars and get less than 10 miles to the gallon.
But when it is cheaper to drive a couple of miles to a store to get a gallon of milk in an old gas guzzler than it is to pay UTA's $2.35 bus fare, the car wins and the environment loses.
Salt Lake City's negotiations with UTA should start with proposals to increase mass transit ridership and reduce automobile use and pollution. Lowering fares is one of the best ways to increase ridership.
Here are some possible scenarios:
• Reduce fares in an area such as from downtown to the University of Utah.
• Reduce fares on off-peak travel times such as midday and after 6 p.m.
• Reduce fares on buses (with free transfers to TRAX) to encourage less use of parking lots at TRAX stations.
• Reduce fares for red and yellow air days.
On June 12 the Salt Lake City Council will hold a public hearing on eliminating the free-fare zone downtown.
It's an opportunity to work with UTA on increasing bus ridership.
George Chapman uses mass transit, in Utah and when traveling. He lives in Salt Lake City.