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The Utah Transit Authority board said Wednesday that it plans to make a final decision next year whether to change fares based on distance traveled, rather than the current practice of charging flat fees for trips of any length.
If the change looks good, the new system would launch in January 2016.
That came as the board outlined tentative UTA goals for 2015, and sent them along with its proposed 2015 budget to the public and cities and counties for comment. A hearing is scheduled Nov. 19 at 2:30 p.m. on the budget and the goals at UTA headquarters, 669 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
One of those new goals calls for UTA to make a "go/no-go decision on distance-based fare by Oct. 31, 2015, and if the decision is 'go,' launch in January 2016."
UTA says that finding a right balance for distance-based fares could increase ridership. For example, people who take short trips would pay less and might be coaxed to keep a bus or rail-fare card in their pocket for everyday trips.
Long-distance commuters would pay more under such a system. But UTA has said that may be addressed through use of weekly or monthly passes to help keep down prices.
UTA currently is conducting a pilot program on distance-based fares on a few bus routes around Brigham Young University, to see if such a system will increase ridership among students taking short trips there.
UTA is considering many options for future distance-based fares beyond the current test model at BYU. UTA has also begun a study looking at all its fares and passes and how they may be changed.
In recent years, UTA has installed GPS systems on buses and trains to allow charging fares by distance traveled when riders using electronic-fare cards "tap on" and "tap off" as they enter and leave buses and trains. UTA has said that a distance-based fare system may largely do away with cash fares.
Another key UTA board goal which UTA executives would need to meet to win annual bonuses would be to increase ridership by 3.3 percent in 2015 over 2014.
Board member Keith Bartholomew said that number is exactly twice the population growth expected in the area in 2015. "We want to do better than just keep pace. We want to advance our market share," he said.
Other goals include breaking ground on three new "transit-oriented developments" using UTA land at transit stations; showing improvement in key customer satisfaction indicators; attracting $75 million in federal grants for new projects; and developing a better system to ensure a state of good repair for UTA trains, buses and systems.
The board previously released its proposed 2015 budget, but the official comment period on it opened Wednesday.
That budget would increase service hours by 2 percent, including restoring service on the Memorial, Independence and Labor Day holidays that was cut during the recession.
It also does not include any fare increases in 2015.
The budget does dig into reserves to make ends meet, a practice that was criticized by a recent legislative audit. For example, UTA's operations budget requires dipping into reserves for $10 million in 2015.
The legislative audit complained that long-range UTA plans call for spending more than its revenue in coming years, and said that has contributed to shaky finances after the agency borrowed heavily to build new TRAX and FrontRunner lines.
The debt service on bonds for rail projects is projected to cost UTA $100.5 million next year, about a third of its operations budget. Given that obligation, the legislative audit warned, "UTA has little margin for error if sales-tax revenues do not meet expectations" in coming years.