Salt Lake City May Create Free-Fare Transit

Photo:  Smart Growth America
Photo: Smart Growth America

Salt Lake City may soon become the first major American city with free public transit, as voters and mayoral candidates get behind the idea 0f eliminating fares as a way of attacking rampant air pollution.

A new poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah found that almost three-quarters — 71 percent — of local voters said they “strongly” or “somewhat” support eliminating fares as a way to stimulate transit ridership and reduce air pollution from private vehicles.

Meanwhile, at least two candidates of the eight candidates in the city’s August 12 nonpartisan primary election have pledged to eliminate transit fares, while others have said they would consider the idea.

Air pollution is the top concern for Salt Lake City residents, according to a recent poll, ahead of homelessness and affordable housing. Built in a natural basin, Salt Lake City suffers frequent “inversions,” a weather condition that traps fine-particle pollution close to the ground. The city’s inversions cause many health problems among the elderly and people with asthma or heart conditions.

Given the concern, a “majority or plurality support across all age, education, religious and gender groups in the city” support fare-free transit in order to remedy the situation, the Tribune‘s Lee Davison writes of the survey, with 85 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of independents approving the idea. Republicans, who are a minority in Salt Lake City, do not tend to support the proposal.

So Salt Lake City’s would-be mayors have gotten onboard, offering various ways of paying for fare elimination.

Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis says he would seek state support in order to make transit free in the six-county Salt Lake City region — perhaps by diverting funds from the state’s $600 million road fund in order to offset the $52 million the transit agency would lose annually by forgoing fare revenue.

Former City Councilman Stan Penfold proposes making transit free for city residents, even if they travel outside city boundaries; city funds would pay for the fares.

Another candidate, Erin Mendenhall, supports the idea of free transit passes for city residents, but says the transit system must improve frequency and coverage before the city can contemplate eliminating fares.

Salt Lake City has experimented with free transit days — with some success in boosting ridership. Transit boardings rose 16 percent during two free days in February and March.

The state legislature recently signed off on a $1.2 million bill that would pay for 17 free transit days over three years, triggered by forecasts indicating the likelihood of at least one wintertime “inversion.”

Despite being in red-state Utah, Salt Lake City has always been progressive about transportation and growth, having built out a comprehensive light-rail system over the past few decades. In 2013, it was No. 1  in the nation in per-capita transit spending.

Experiments with free transit in the United State have been a bit of a mixed bag. Commuters may not be enticed to switch to transit by a few dollars of savings if using transit adds significant time to their commutes. Free transit seems to work better in small cities like Salt Lake City, with a population of about 230,000.

8 thoughts on Salt Lake City May Create Free-Fare Transit

  1. Most voters who want free transit are really hoping that more people take the bus so there is less highway traffic for their car commute.

  2. thats the good thing done by the government, i wish other countries will soon adopt it.
    thanks for the share and click on fmwa

  3. This is a super awesome idea! One point the article makes is that free transit works better in small cities, and then it says that SLC has a population of 230,000. This is true but mistaken, since the greater SLC metro area (that public transit covers) has a population of over 1.5 million. It’s easy to forget that, since the surrounding cities aren’t technically part of SLC. I would love free transit and would hope that more people ride!

  4. In the downward death spiral that is urban transit, free giveaways are often the last sad attempt to get more riders. Many cities do this with streetcars for free until the operating costs become so egregious they inevitably put a fee, which riders either ignore or cease riding all together. Salt Lake City is so small theres not gonna be enough free riders. Tackling air pollution it would be cheaper if residents bought hybrids or EV’s than the city paying for another mass transit boondoggle. Getting more people on to bikes.

  5. In the downward death spiral that is urban highways, free giveaways are often the last sad attempt to get more cars. Many cities do this with streets and parking for free until the maintenance costs become so egregious that they become unsustainable.

  6. Free is unwise, as it tends to incentivize abuse. Dunno why, but that’s an American problem, consistently. A very low fare (like the classic $1 day pass) seems to be sufficient incentive for people to behave themselves.

  7. “Free is unwise, as it tends to incentivize abuse. Dunno why, but that’s an American problem, consistently.” – Nathanael

    That’s a human problem, no matter where you go.
    I’ll agree on the dollar day pass. Or at least charge drivers for parking.
    If they now it will cost money to bring their car, maybe they’ll rethink how they travel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


A Car-Free Downtown and Other Ideas From Portland’s Mayoral Debate

It’s always interesting to see what mayoral candidates say about streets and transportation in a public debate. Who’s done their homework on transportation policy? Who understands in their gut why better streets for walking, biking, and transit are good for the city? Which candidates are willing to take a stand on these issues while making their case to voters? Most […]

Reminder: Just Laying Track Is No Guarantee Riders Will Come

Laying track isn’t enough to build a successful transit system — as some cities are learning the hard way. A slate of new rail projects — mostly mixed-traffic streetcars, but that’s not the only way to mess up — are attracting embarrassingly few passengers. Some of these projects may be salvageable to some extent, but for now, they don’t […]

Don’t Forget the Third Party Candidates!

In recent posts, we’ve explored the impact President Obama has had on transportation and land-use policy, and we’ve tried to square Candidate Mitt Romney’s oil-soaked rhetoric with Governor Mitt Romney’s smart growth record. We don’t want anyone protesting outside our offices, so our coverage of the presidential election must include the third party candidates. Green […]