Garrott: Keep free-fare zone
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Utah Transit Authority got some good news last week. A leading national think tank, measuring transit linkage with jobs, says the Salt Lake metro area is tops in the country with 64 percent of the area's residents able to get to work on transit within 90 minutes.

Congrats, UTA, you've reached one of your main goals, and the Salt Lake Valley will reap the rewards for decades to come.

Yet we don't need to look very far to see what we've given up in UTA's choice to define success as a 90-minute-or-less commute: service at a smaller scale.

Local bus service continues to erode all over Salt Lake City, and its demise becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Public funding falls, quality erodes, ridership dwindles, funding is cut more.

Downtown, the area I represent, has also lost east-west train service. The most recent slap was routing the airport line away from the University of Utah, when expectations, for years, were led in a different direction. Another recent alarm was set off by the bizarrely meager deal proposed by the Becker Administration and UTA in renegotiating the free-fare zone downtown.

Luckily, the city is legally required to value an asset before trading it away. What if we valued the free-fare zone not first and foremost in dollars, but in the service provided? That way, a fair outcome for Salt Lake City would be equal-or-better service than the zone was intended to provide.

That original intent was to move residents and visitors around downtown easily. With the elimination of the bus part of the zone, significant parts of downtown will be cut off from free service.

We won't have anything close to the circulator that has been envisioned in every single plan that the city, downtown residents and businesses, and UTA have shared in developing. It's obvious why we need a circulator: Our blocks are long and our downtown is sprawled.

But can we rely on UTA to provide a circulator? It seems now that UTA couldn't care less about the health of downtown, even as a significant part of its operating revenue comes from taxes collected in our city. It's UTA's tone deafness, in this case to the harmonies of free transit, tourism, local ridership and economic development, that we in Salt Lake City can't tolerate any more.

Ideally, a circulating trolley car would run on existing TRAX rail, once the 400 South line is extended west of Main Street and links up with a trolley line traveling on 400 West.

Although this "closing the loop" is in UTA's capital plans, no one has talked seriously about building it.

In the meantime, a clearly-designated, non-UTA bus could serve a branded downtown route with close intervals of service. The city doesn't have to run this system, but needs to be the driving force in its creation. There is potential for partnerships (with the U., UTA, Salt Lake County, State of Utah) to share vehicles and service depots.

Our partners in meeting operating expenses could be groups who are set to benefit by a booming downtown: the members of the Downtown Alliance, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the State of Utah, Salt Lake County, and, yes, UTA.

By UTA contributing a significant amount of an operating subsidy to the circulator, promises and plans will be made whole. Maybe they'll throw in some old buses, too, that the community can decide how to paint.

According to UTA, overcoming the operational challenges created by the free-fare zone would be a major improvement. Buses create an extra headache for fare collection, with UTA's screwy directional-pay system. I maintain they could save a whole lot of money by focusing on things other than collecting fares. But that discussion will have to wait for another day.

Everyone who uses it knows that free transit works downtown.

It's our responsibility in Salt Lake City government to make sure that our free-fare zone negotiations result in an improvement, not a diminution, of the capacity of people to move freely downtown. To shirk this responsibility is to put into peril many big plans.

Luke Garrott is a member of the Salt Lake City Council, representing District 4 downtown.