SALT LAKE CITY — In recent years, the uncertainty of student transit passes has been a fixture of the new school year for Utah university and college students — along with text books and class schedules.

Rate fluctuations and the fact that each of Utah's higher education institutions, such as the University of Utah, Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College, have independently negotiated contracts with the Utah Transit Authority has created a bumpy road for student transit passes.

On Friday, the Utah Board of Regents approved a new strategy to conduct collective bargaining on behalf of most of Utah's higher education schools. The contract, which should be finalized in the next few weeks, is expected to be a three-year contract, as opposed the customary year-to-year agreements. The goal, higher-ed officials say, is to smooth out the bumps caused by annual contracts and transit fare increases.

Higher education students and UTA have a close relationship. According to the transit authority, students comprise 25 percent of its market.

"Right now, we're still in discussion with UTA. We've had a number of meetings with them, and we've had good progress," said Val Peterson, vice president of finance for UVU, who is negotiating with UTA for the Board of Regents.

The contract will impact UVU, as well as SLCC and Weber State University.

Last spring, UTA wanted to raise Ed Pass rates for students, Peterson said.

"It was just a huge jump in one year," he said.

That caused UTA and education officials to sit down and try to figure out a better way of negotiating.

UTA corporate operations officer Jerry Benson said the multi-year contract should also result in the same rates and benefits for all of the state's higher education institutions, meaning all higher education students should have access to bus, TRAX and FrontRunner.

"There were great differences among education institutions," Benson said. "They are basically going to be on the same equal footing."

It will still be up to each institution on how they pass on the cost of the Ed Pass to students. Officials from the University of Utah and Weber State University say passes will still be subsidized through student fees and tuition, and will be offered to all students at no extra cost.

SLCC has offered subsidized passes to students with students paying some out-of-pocket cost. UVU has discussed also having students pay some price out of pocket. Neither SLCC or UVU will know the exact cost until the collective agreement is finalized.

A spokesman for BYU said the university hopes to also participate in UTA's 25 percent discount pass program. Last fall, BYU officials said the school would no longer subsidize student bus passes. The passes are expected to cost around $60 a month.

Benson said institutions that plan to offer an out-of-pocket pass can do so with a 25 percent discount from the full-market price.

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"Students and educational institutions are a really important part of our transit customer base," Benson said.

WSU officials say they have given out 14,000 Ed Passes in 2010 — double the number they did in 2009. Weber State averages 2,000 Ed Pass users daily.

The U. reports that more than a third of its campus is using the Ed Pass, averaging between 4,500 and 6,500 riders every day. Commuter services director Alma Allred said the U. will continue to independently negotiate its own contract with UTA.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com