SALT LAKE CITY — The experiment offering free fares across Utah Transit Authority's entire system appears to have been a success.
Final data provided by UTA for "Free Fare February" shows a 16% increase in weekday ridership system-wide; a 58% spike on Saturdays (with an astounding 202% increase on Frontrunner trains); and a nearly 33% increase on Sundays (when only buses and TRAX are available).
"It’s great news. It’s encouraging news and it’s significant, too," said UTA spokesperson Carl Arky.
"Free Fare February" was conceived to see if more people really would get on public transit if they no longer charged the $2.50 fare (more depending on how far one travels on Frontrunner). Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall pushed it with some support from the Utah State Legislature.
"To see that one out of five riders during Free Fare February were new to the system and such tremendous growth on not just weekdays but weekend travel, too? It shows how much built-up potential there is to do this in a bigger way," Mayor Mendenhall said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13 News.
The mayor pointed to UTA's own data showing as much as 68 tons of pollutants were removed from the roads throughout February as a result of the experiment. A survey of 5,000 riders found more than half were choosing to get on a bus or train because it was free; 87% said they would continue to ride it if it stayed free.
"It’ll be interesting to see how it’s sustained in the months to come," Arky said, adding that they are studying to see if the experiment captured new riders beyond the month of free transit.
Mayor Mendenhall is among those who would like to explore making free transit permanent. Such an idea would not come cheap. An estimate provided to the Utah State Legislature said it could be as much as $50 million annually.
"I think it’s a good program but there’s that little issue with the price tag," said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
Sen. Harper told FOX 13 News he was pleased to see the outcomes with the February experiment. He also planned to hold a hearing in the next few months about the successes, challenges and whether the state should make it "Free Fare Forever."
But Sen. Harper also cautioned that "free transit" is really taxpayer-funded and pointed out that it does not include any improvements to public transit. A bill to make all transit statewide free to ride did not advance in the 2022 legislative session.
"If people are paying for it? They can expand services. My concern with going through and doing this, is will this impede the ability for UTA or anybody else to do more bus routes, more frequency on the other transit modes, to do BRT (bus rapid transit). That’s a real question," he said. "If we could cover that, yes. Otherwise, I’m really in favor of expanding service and that’s what most people want."
UTA said that a $40-50 million price tag is just to keep existing services free with no expansion.
Mayor Mendenhall said permanent free transit could stretch out the life of existing roads by removing cars, resulting in cost savings for Utah's Department of Transportation.
"The legislature absolutely should," she said. "Especially because how much they spend, we spend, as a state on our UDOT system. The more people we can get out of single occupant vehicles, the better air quality is, the better our traffic congestion, road repairs, and there’s a tremendous effect on a neighborhood level."