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David Bierman takes TRAX every day from Sandy, thanks to free passes the University of Utah offers to all students and staff.

As the U. graduate student waits for a train, he says he would hate to lose that perk.

But he might — along with thousands of other commuters.

The Utah Transit Authority is considering eliminating all passes in its plan to switch from flat fees to distance-based fares.

"Monthly passes as they currently exist would likely not be part of a distance-based fare system," concedes UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter.

For Bierman, that would mean major changes not only in how he commutes but also where he lives.

"I would have to move closer to the university," he says because the daily travel would cost too much.

He guesses others at the U. would drive if they lose free passes, adding to parking woes there and bad air throughout the valley. After all, a third of students and staff use those free transit passes.

UTA's plans may make thousands more riders shudder as well — since three of every four passengers now use some sort of discounted pass or token, according to UTA data requested by The Salt Lake Tribune.

In addition, about $2 of every $3 in UTA fare revenue comes from riders using discount programs.

But Carpenter urges pass holders not to panic. The change — intended to boost ridership revenue and fare equity — is probably years away, and no final decisions have been made.

The agency plans to stage public hearings and consultations with schools and employers taking part in the pass programs. He expects some form of discounts to emerge.

The future • At least one early proposal envisions a radically different system than UTA's current one — including eliminating all passes and the free-fare zone in downtown Salt Lake City.

Those recommendations appear in a UTA-commissioned study by the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting company about how to structure rates to meet the twin goals of making fares more fair and decreasing subsidies from sales taxes.

By taking advantage of Global Positioning System satellite technology, this plan foresees most riders using prepaid "tap-on, tap-off" electronic cards that would deduct per-mile fees up to a maximum amount per trip. Any riders using cash would have to pay that maximum amount upfront. Riders likely would be able to add money to their cards online or at a variety of stores.

The study says that would decrease fare-collection costs and be more equitable — since someone going a few blocks now pays the same amount as someone traveling 20 miles. (Salt Lake City Council members have said they may be willing to give up the bus free-fare zone for a distance-based system because it may save their residents money — while costing suburban commuters more.)

The Booz Allen report proposes scrapping passes because they "are difficult to enforce in a proof-of-payment environment. In addition, since passes allow unlimited travel during a defined period, they dilute fare revenue and are not recommended if a key objective is to increase fare revenue."

But the study notes fare cards could be programmed to allow discounts for some groups, such as students or seniors. They could also give free trips or bonuses to frequent riders.

Pass, fail • Carpenter says that is just one of many studies about possible new fare systems. Others are ongoing. He adds that no policy decisions about distance-based fares have yet been made.

UTA board member Keith Bartholomew, who is a U. professor, would like passes to continue in a new system partly because they have prodded students and staff to use mass transit regularly, decreasing congestion and parking problems on campus.

"The classic example," he says, "is asking skiers how often they ski when they have a season pass compared to how often they go when they buy individual tickets. You figure how often you use it to break even, then it feels like the rest is free, and you want to use it."

In this way, passes help keep ridership high.

Carpenter says UTA is talking to schools and major employers about possibilities. He says the agency also plans pilot programs to test whatever system it develops.

Alma Allred, director of commuter services at the U., calls it "critically important" that the new system continue to allow the school to encourage transit use.

"If we all of a sudden have another 6,000 people trying to find a place to park on campus, life will be very difficult for me," he says. Studies show that a third of commuters to the U. use mass transit, choosing that option because of heavy subsidies the school provides.

Free pass to big money • Finding how to keep ridership high while also keeping UTA afloat financially could be tricky because most customers are hooked on discounts.

About 50 percent of riders now receive subsidized passes from universities or employers, according to UTA data. Another 25 percent buy discount monthly passes on their own. Only 25 percent purchase per-trip tickets.

But the Booz Allen report notes that such a breakdown leads to inequities among fares. For example, the 25 percent who buy per-trip tickets pay about 40 percent of all fares. The half who receive passes from schools or employers provide about 28 percent of revenue.

The current system has led to some groups accounting for high percentages of UTA riders, making them especially important to the agency's future. The U., for instance, pays UTA $3.3 million a year for passes. That is about 8 percent of all fare revenue UTA pockets.

"I know we pay a lot of money to UTA," Allred says, "and I don't think they are any more interested in giving up that money than we are in giving up the access to transit."

Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance in Salt Lake City, says businesses also are watching developments closely because "mass transit is critical to the downtown area. … Literally tens of thousands of employees rely on mass transit daily, in addition to shoppers, residents and visitors."

For example, the LDS Church and its businesses shell out about $1.8 million a year for passes, about 5 percent of all UTA fare collections. State government buys passes amounting to about 2 percent of all UTA fare revenue, and Salt Lake City's purchases account for 1 percent.

Continuing change • Carpenter says UTA pass programs have been evolving — and sometimes disappearing — without the shift toward distance-based fares.

Many universities once had the free-to-user passes similar to those still provided by the U. But they have largely disappeared because colleges could not afford them during tight times. Several opted for less-expensive options.

Carpenter says some, including BYU and Salt Lake Community College, set aside small amounts to help subsidize passes their students buy.

"But when it's gone, it's gone," he says, and that money often runs out early in the school year.

Some colleges — such as Weber State University, Utah Valley University and Westminster College — have gone to a system in which they agree to pay for what pass-using students' actual fares would be to a maximum amount, and then the schools receive "free" usage after hitting that cap.

For example, Weber agreed to pay up to $471,900 for transit rides during the school year beginning last August. Students and staff used up that value by January and had "free" use of the system since then.

Carpenter says such tracking allows UTA to negotiate for "appropriate," mostly higher, payment for services rendered to schools or employers — and lets them plan for higher (or lower) costs as they watch usage.

That approach, plus plans for distance-base fares, may mean the end of the line for U. commuters' free ride and for other discount-pass users.

"That's too bad," Bierman says. "It's been great to use every day."