UTA free fare year proposed to improve Utah’s air quality

Feb 8, 2023, 6:03 PM | Updated: Feb 9, 2023, 6:19 am

SALT LAKE CITY — The bipartisan Utah Legislative Clean Air Caucus unveiled several bills and appropriations Tuesday aimed at improving air quality in Utah.

One of the boldest ideas would enable Utahns to drastically reduce their driving for an entire year.  The caucus is also squarely focused on the negative air quality impacts of the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

Free Fare February was a huge hit when the Utah Transit Authority rolled that out a year ago.

This year, legislators will consider a statewide, free fare pilot program for an entire year to make a bigger dent in the number one source of Utah’s pollution.

“We did it one month in February, a year ago. Every type of ridership went up,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.

UTA said it saw ridership averages grow significantly on all services a year ago. Ridership on weekdays increased by 16%, FrontRunner grew by 35.7% for the month, and UTA On Demand saw a 23% increase.

Saturdays saw the biggest increases with FrontRunner up a whopping 202%, 74.5% for TRAX and overall ridership up 58%.  Average ridership on Sundays increased 32.5% overall, 144% on UTA On Demand alone.

Utahns have shown they will ride UTA in greater numbers given the chance to ride free.  Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is sponsoring an appropriations request from Gov. Spencer Cox for $25.5 million for free fare transit statewide for a year.  

UTA bus

A measure is proposed to make fares free for a year on UTA. (KSL TV)

Weiler points out there’s no room for another highway through his district of Davis County between the mountains and the Great Salt Lake.

“The only way that we are going to manage growth through my district is to get more people to ride the train, and there are barriers to getting people to do that the first time. I sincerely believe that if we made it free for a year, we’ll get a lot more people trying it out,” Weiler said.

Collectively Utahns drive 60 million miles a day along the Wasatch Front in 1 million different vehicles. The committee cochair believes the program could take more cars off the road than any other effort. 

“Every time we’ve done zero fare UTA, one day, two days, one month we’ve increased ridership. And I think one year is the next logical step,” Briscoe said. 

It’s in the governor’s budget and needs to pass through the executive appropriations committee and both houses. 

“The first thing that needs to happen for clean air in our state is that we not let anything further bad happen to the Great Salt Lake,” said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Salt Lake. 

The larger lakebed exposed by drought is causing new airborne dust sources that include toxins.

“We need to keep water in the lake because we can’t afford to have that big new dust source,” Owens said. 

The Owens appropriation would add air monitoring and chemical analysis in communities surrounding the Great Salt Lake.

“So that we can monitor in real-time what is coming off the lake that,” he said. 

The director of the Utah Division of Air Quality believes the bills aimed at protecting the Great Salt Lake are vital. 

“A very unique challenge,” Bryce Bird said. “But we also understand that we’re responsible for a lot of the diminishment of the lake level. So there are things we can do.  Really the focus, the last two years of the legislature has been to make sure those water levels are increased so we can mitigate those impacts of the dust.”

Another appropriations request would expand electric vehicle charging stations statewide, and develop software to track and report information on the consumption of clean energy through the charging stations. 

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UTA free fare year proposed to improve Utah’s air quality