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Free transit for a year has to get past the Utah Legislature first

Salt Lake City, United States - December 14, 2007: Elderly woman with disabilities leaves out the bus in a wheelchair
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Salt Lake City, United States - December 14, 2007: Elderly woman with disabilities leaves out the bus in a wheelchair

There’s a chance that public transit across Utah could soon cost riders zero dollars for an entire year. But it will only become a reality if the Utah Legislature hops on board.

In his 2024 fiscal year budget, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox set aside $25 million to fund the pilot program.

Cox praised 2022’s Free Fare February, a shorter version of what he’s proposing now. Utah Transit Authority datashow that ridership boomed during the free month, with a large chunk consisting of new riders. The data also indicated more people were likely to take public transit if it didn’t cost money out of their pocket.

The biggest roadblock to free transit is the Utah Legislature. During a monthly news conference with Utah reporters, Cox said he expects a “robust debate” once the legislative session starts in January.

Incoming state Democratic Sen. Nate Blouin doesn’t project every lawmaker will be as stoked on the idea as he is, but he thinks it’s worth funding a year of free transit to see how ridership changes.

“We've got this awesome opportunity for free fares and to see what it does to increase ridership,” he said. “I think that'll give us [the Legislature] a good vision of what we need to provide going forward and then we can kind of worry about the expansion of the system.”

Blouin does expect pushback. He anticipates some lawmakers will prefer to use that money for tax cuts or to expand bus routes instead of lowering fares.

But that’s not going to stop him from trying to persuade his colleagues to approve the budget item.

“Even if you don't use transit, it's still really good for you,” Blouin said. “You're going to see less congestion if more people are getting out of their cars and riding on the train or the bus.”

UTA also supports the governor’s zero-fare pitch. Jay Fox, the executive director of UTA, said data show that ridership would increase anywhere from 24-36% if people didn’t have to fork over a $2.50 fare for a one-way ticket.

“We're excited about any initiative that would increase ridership, take more cars off the road, improve our air quality [and] help the wear and tear on our highways,” Fox said.

According to Fox, it costs about $400 million annually to service UTA, and fares account for about $35 million in revenue. That means the governor’s proposed $25 million wouldn’t fully cover the difference in fare profit.

To make up the difference, Fox said he would like to maintain partnerships with large companies and universities, like the University of Utah, that pay for employees and students to ride UTA for free.

But he doesn’t expect making transit free would increase UTA’s overall operation costs. In fact, Fox noted more people riding public transit through this program could accelerate the authority’s five-year plan to expand service and reliability.

Cox said the trial period would provide insight into whether free public transit leads to less congestion on the roads and the reliability of cars.

Fox has similar questions. He would like to see how a year of free transit would affect air quality, infrastructure, the economy and transit mobility and accessibility.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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