Transit to be free on Friday

Local officials hope to entice last-minute shoppers and holiday revelers with a free alternative to holiday traffic while getting residents better acquainted with the regions public transit network.  On Friday, the Salt Lake City Council, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and UTA officials announced that December 22 will be “Free Fare Friday” for UTA’s entire fleet, including FrontRunner and Ski buses.

“It is going to take all of us to start really having an impact on air quality,” said Salt Lake City Council member Stan Penfold.

Penfold organized the Friday event in an attempt to encourage transit use during the region’s winter inversions.  The council partnered with the county and UTA to underwrite the average Friday fares to make riding transit free for the entire Wasatch Front on Friday.  The three partners contributed a combined $70,000 to offset the loss in collected fares.

“We expect some big ridership numbers for an off-peak day,” said Jerry Benson, the president and CEO of UTA.

According to officials, on Friday UTA operators will be instructed to not take payment and pass holders will not need to tap on and off.  Officials hope free fares will encourage more people to use transit, especially first-time riders.

“In my opinion, there’s no reason we can’t reduce or eliminate fares to get cars off the road, help improve air quality during inversions and prevent Red Air Days from happening in the first place,” said Penfold.  The council member said he hopes that Friday’s event could lead to future free or reduced-fare days during Orange and Red Air Days.  Officials will use the Friday’s ridership data to explore future initiatives.

Officials estimate that about 57 percent of wintertime air emissions, including nearly half of the more dangerous, PM2.5 particulates that lodge in people’s and animals’ lungs and can contribute to health ailments.  Additionally, a single transit vehicle can replace between 45 and 350 solo-driver cars and trucks. A typical UTA bus can carry 45 riders, each FrontRunner commuter train car accommodates about 350 and a TRAX light rail car can carry up to 150 riders.

Penfold added that state and local leaders need to find ways to make public transit more convenient and affordable to increase ridership. He cited the city’s newly adopted Transit Master Plan that calls for increased service frequency and lower fares to encourage transit use.

The Salt Lake City Council will explore funding mechanisms for expanding the city’s transit network next year, minus Penfold whose term expires on December 31.  At the regional level, UTA and state officials are exploring ways to restructure the beleaguered transit agency to allow for greater state control and financial assistance to expand transit service.

The business community has also become involved in improving air quality.  Last week the Salt Lake Chamber Board of Governors launched the Zero Red Air Days Initiative, a business-led effort to help reduce emissions.  The Initiative encourages businesses to explore ways to reduce emissions through the state’s TravelWise program which encourages telecommuting, carpooling assistance, flextime travel and reducing company car trips during Orange and Red Air Days.

“As business leaders, we think there is a real need for public leadership on this issue and believe that a united effort is needed to make a measurable impact,” said Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber in a statement.  ” I’m hopeful that every business, elected official and Utah family will work toward this goal.”

But getting more business to subsidize transit passes for employees may get more difficult in the coming years.  Today the House of Representatives approved a tax bill that eliminates the tax incentive for private companies to subsidize transit and bicycle commuting expenses.

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