Having several children of her own, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she understands the time, cost and effort it takes to get the kids to travel around town.
“I know running to three different schools daily is 30 starts and pick-ups in a week,” she said. “It takes a community, it takes a village, to make sure your children get there safely.”
But under a new pilot program beginning this fall, students and employees of the Salt Lake City School District will have the opportunity to use public transportation for free, not only to and from schools, but also to part-time jobs and internships, doctor’s appointments and errands, parks and museums, or 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 about a decade. The average city dweller spends 20% of their income on transportation, she said, leading 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 time, the right group of people and a financial commitment, beyond what we’ve done before, from your capital,” Mendenhall said. “This is a band that sees the hiccups, understands them and keeps going. The buses are literally rolling ahead, the trains are rolling, because we’re not going to stop trying to figure out what should be happening”
Get on the bus, Gus
As part of the program, students and staff will receive an individual physical pass giving access to buses, TRAX light rail and UTA’s on-demand service (only available on the west side), comparable to the Hive Pass which is available for years to city residents at a reduced rate.
Premium UTA services such as Frontrunner and ski resort shuttles will not be included with school passes, but will be available to pass holders for a reduced additional fee.
“Getting to and from school will be easier and more convenient, saving parents time and money,” said UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen. “It’s also a great opportunity to encourage our young students to learn about public transit.”
James Yapias, director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation, said City Weekly it will be up to local school administrators to distribute the passes this fall. He said the foundation is working with the district to establish the process for assigning and distributing the cards to students and staff, as well as replacing those that inevitably get misplaced.
“If they lose them, we’ll deactivate that card and give them a new card,” Yapias said. “It costs us to print them, to make them, so it will be a process that we will have to go through.”
And while the program is expected to continue, the district and UTA have so far only committed to a one-year pilot project, at a cost of approximately $379,000. paid in concert by the city council, the school district and the educational foundation.
“I think we all want the same outcomes, which is access for low-income families so they can save money on inflation, on the cost of gas, and with all these other issues,” Yapias said.
Utah’s public transit has played an increasingly important role in recent years, especially in the central service area of Salt Lake City.
In February, UTA eliminated systemwide fares 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 cold air cover. And over 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 about a decade.
“It’s been wonderful to see how often Salt Lake City has come together with UTA lately,” Mendenhall said. “We do a lot of things together.”
According to UTA spokesman Carl Arky, overall transit ridership is still below pre-COVID levels. But he added that ridership is trending up and increasingly shows a shift in how Utahns use public transit, from two-way commuter service for weekday workers to one that moves commuters. passengers to a wide range of destinations for any number of activities throughout the week.
“We don’t see the big spikes during rush hour or rush hour, early morning or late afternoon,” Arky said. “We are seeing consistent footfall throughout the day and on weekends.”
He suggested the new pilot program could reinforce these trends and lead to improved services by highlighting the ways children and their families use the public transit system as it is made more accessible.
“It will give a lot of information,” Arky said. “A lot of data will come out of that.”
Hit the road, Jack
While UTA offers several pass programs for frequent transit users, the agency has also looked into free partnerships, with concert and event tickets as well as boarding passes. for the airport regularly doubling the price of transporting a person.
But with the new school district program, more than 20,000 people will now be eligible for continued free service, or about 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 budget by reducing the need for private automobiles and gasoline 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 short- and long-term benefits to encouraging the Salt Lakers to get out of their cars and onto public transportation, especially for younger residents who are otherwise limited in their ability to navigate. in the city.
“We are impacting our air quality now and also attracting lifelong UTA riders in the future,” Ford said.
Yapias, of the Salt Lake Education Foundation, stressed that the intention of the pilot project is not to diminish or supplant the district’s traditional bus fleet. In addition to morning and afternoon routes, yellow school buses are regularly used by districts for field trips and extracurricular activities.
“I think school buses are all essential,” Yapias said. “There are a lot of learning opportunities that 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 using school district vehicles.
“I hate to predict,” Yapias said. “We’re just going to take it one day at a time and obviously it would be up to the district leaders to look at that as we pilot this program.”
Likewise, Arky said it’s difficult to predict how the student fare program in Salt Lake might spill over and affect transit services for children and families in Utah, in general.
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 about the possibility of February’s free fare being repeated, revised or expanded.
“Hopefully it won’t take so long to onboard other school districts,” Arky said, “but it takes a financial commitment.”