Public transportation use dips on red air days

Posted at 8:33 PM, Jan 08, 2013
and last updated 2013-01-08 22:37:35-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utahns prefer to drive instead of using TRAX on red air days. The question is why, what can be done about it and if there's no progress, what are the consequences?

"It's bad; it's definitely pretty bad right now," said Gerald Crawford. "Driving right now is pretty bad with the congestion."

You won't find one person in Utah who disagrees with Gerald Crawford's observation about the air right now.  Crawford, however, represents a small portion of the population that uses public transportation more often on red air days.

 "Actually there are about 40 to 50 red burn days every year," says Gerry Carpenter, a spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority.

Fox 13 wanted to know how many Utahns are actually taking advantage of the system when the pollution is this bad. UTA released numbers from 2011 which show nearly 10,000 riders were lost on red air days.

"Not exactly sure why that particular trend," said Carpenter.

So what is the solution? We asked riders.

"Oh, that's actually a tough question," said Daniel Bowers, who rides the bus.

"If we had the ability to make everything free, it would be a lot better and people would take advantage of the transportation more," suggested Teri Gomm, who uses FrontRunner.

UTA says the cost is simply too high.

"If you were to eliminate or reduce our fare revenue, that's a pretty big impact to our budget. If TRAX, FrontRunner or bus services were free for an average of 50 red air days per year at a cost of $150,000 a day, that's a $7.5 million loss annually," Carpenter said.
"What we need to do is have a funding source where a large employer could subsidize employee passes to encourage their employees to ride every day. Or perhaps there could even be a form of government subsidy to help offset lost revenue."

However, UTA could lose out on government funding if the state fails to meet the EPA's guidelines. Utah has until 2014 to figure it out, and if we don't?

"We don't know exactly what impact it might have on us, we do get about 50 to 60 million dollars a year from the federal government," says Carpenter.

As part of trying to reduce its carbon footprint and meet the EPA's guidelines, UTA has ordered a new fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses, which have half the amount of emissions as diesel buses.