Ticket to Ride | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

August 24, 2022 News » Cover Story

Ticket to Ride 

Free transit for Salt Lake City School District students and staff begins this fall.

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  • Courtesy Photo

With multiple children of her own, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she understands the time, cost and effort involved in getting kids around town.

"I know that running to three different schools on a daily basis—that's 30 drop-offs and pickups in a week," she said. "It takes a community, it takes a village, to make sure your kids just get there safe."

But under a new pilot program beginning this fall, students and employees of the Salt Lake City School District will have the option to ride public transit for free—not just to and from schools, but also for part-time jobs and internships, doctor's appointments and errands, parks and museums or to virtually any other destination served by the Utah Transit Authority (UTA).

Mendenhall—speaking at a press event earlier this month—said city, school and transit leaders have been discussing the idea of free student fares for roughly a decade. The average city resident spends 20% of their income on transportation, she said, which leads too many families to say "no" to opportunities and activities as the cost of living rises.

"It was such a big undertaking that it took the right moment, the right group of people and a financial commitment, beyond what we've done before, from your capital city," Mendenhall said. "This is a group that sees hiccups, figures them out and keeps going. The buses are literally rolling ahead, the trains are rolling, because we aren't going to stop trying to figure out what should be happening"

Hop on the Bus, Gus
Under the program, students and staff will receive an individual, physical transit pass providing access to buses, TRAX light rail and UTA's on-demand service (only available on the west side), comparable to the Hive Pass that for years has been available to city residents at a discounted rate.

Premium UTA services like Frontrunner and ski resort shuttles will not be included with the school passes, but will be available to passholders at a discounted, supplemental charge.

"Getting to and from school is going to be easier and more convenient, saving parents time and gas money," said Carlton Christensen, chairman of the UTA Board of Trustees. "It's also a great opportunity to encourage our young students to become more familiar with transit."

James Yapias, director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation, told City Weekly it will be up to local school administrators to hand out the passes this fall. He said the foundation is working with the district to establish the process for assigning and distributing cards to individual students and staff, as well as for replacing those that are inevitably misplaced.

"If they lose them, we'll deactivate that card and give them a new card," Yapias said. "It does cost us printing them, getting it done, so it is going to be a process we have to go through."

And while it is expected that the program will continue, the district and UTA have so far committed only to a one-year pilot, at a cost of roughly $379,000 paid in concert by the city council, the school district and the education foundation.

"I think we all want the same results—that is access for low-income families so they are able to save some money with inflation, on the cost of gas and with all these other issues," Yapias said.

Utah public transit has increasingly taken on a mainstream role in recent years, particularly in the core Salt Lake City service area.

In February, UTA eliminated fares systemwide for the entire month in partnership with the city and in response to Utah's winter inversion, which sees car exhaust and other contaminants trapped under a lid of cold air. And in the past month, UTA has opened a new TRAX station in Salt Lake City and a new Frontrunner station in Vineyard, each the first of their kind in roughly a decade.

"It's been wonderful how often Salt Lake City is coming together with UTA lately," Mendenhall said. "We are doing a lot together."

Overall transit ridership numbers are still below pre-COVID levels, according to UTA spokesman Carl Arky. But he added that ridership is trending upward and increasingly shows a shift in the way Utahns are using transit, from a two-way commuter service for weekday workers to one that moves riders to a breadth of destinations for any number of activities throughout the week.

"We're not seeing the big spikes during peak hours, or rush hours—the early morning or the late afternoon," Arky said. "We're seeing consistent ridership throughout the day and on weekends."

He suggested the new pilot program could bolster those trends and lead to improved services by highlighting the ways that children and their families use the transit network as it's made more accessible.

"This will give a lot of information," Arky said. "A lot of data will come from this."

Hit the Road, Jack
While UTA offers several pass programs for frequent transit riders, the agency has also leaned into free-fare partnerships, with concert and event tickets as well as airport boarding passes regularly doubling as a person's transit fare.

But with the new school district program, more than 20,000 people will now be eligible for ongoing free service—or roughly 10% of the city's total population.

School board president Melissa Ford said the program has the potential to be "life-changing" for many families, easing the bottom line of budgets by reducing the need for private automobiles and gas purchases.

"More than half of our students come from low-income families," Ford said. "Every dollar saved makes a huge difference."

She suggested there are both short- and long-term benefits to encouraging Salt Lakers to get out of their cars and onto public transit, particularly for younger residents who are otherwise limited in their ability to navigate the city.

"We are making an impact on our air quality now and also drawing in future, lifelong UTA riders," Ford said.

Yapias, of the Salt Lake Education Foundation, emphasized that the intention of the pilot is not to diminish or supplant the district's traditional bus fleet. In addition to running morning and afternoon routes, yellow school buses are regularly used by districts for field trips and extracurricular activities.

"I think the school buses are all critical to have," Yapias said. "There's a lot of learning opportunities our students would miss if we didn't have the yellow buses."

But if the UTA pilot were to succeed and continue, it could lead to new ways of thinking about and utilizing school district vehicles.

"I hate to predict," Yapias said. "We're going to just take it one day at a time and that would obviously be for district leaders to review that as we pilot this program."

Similarly, Arky said it's difficult to predict how the student fare program in Salt Lake could ripple out and affect transit services for Utah children and families, generally.

He said other school districts in the county have expressed interest in pursuing their own versions of the pilot, and conversations are ongoing with city and state leaders around the potential for Free Fare February to be repeated, revised or expanded.

"Hopefully, it won't take that long to get other school districts on board," Arky said, "but it does take a financial commitment."

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About The Author

Benjamin Wood

Benjamin Wood

Lifelong Utahn Benjamin Wood has worn the mantle of City Weekly's news editor since 2021. He studied journalism at Utah State University and previously wrote for The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News and Entertainment Weekly

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