The Utah Transit Authority painted itself into a bit of a corner when it decided years ago to offer free fares on its successful TRAX system in the downtown area and discounted fares to certain classes of patrons.
Now, the agency is searching for ways to stabilize its long-term revenue picture and, as a result, is contemplating the possible elimination of the free fare zone and programs offering discounts to college students, government employees and others.
As it moves forward, it is critical that UTA finds a place of balance that will allow it to sustain operations in a way that does not lead to a decrease in ridership. That will be a difficult recipe to follow.
Talk of eliminating free and discounted fares is already generating complaints from those who have grown accustomed to the benefits, as well as those who wish to see mass transit grow ridership and not give incentives to people to abandon TRAX and bus service for private automobiles.
The light rail system is now in its second decade and by all quantitative measurement is extraordinarily successful. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institute ranked the Salt Lake metro-area transit system as the nation's most effective in terms of allowing a large percentage of the area's population — about 64 percent — access to work within a 90-minute window.
But UTA says its revenue model was predicated on a consistent contribution from tax revenue, something that has unfortunately not proven to be consistent because of recession and other factors. The agency says it's not likely it can keep subsidies for ridership and maintain the kind of revenue line it needs to sustain and grow operations.
In the early going, it was smart for UTA to offer incentives to ridership to build a loyal base of patronage. Retracting those incentives will rankle those who have grown to expect them.
At the same time, it's in the general public interest to have a thriving and sustainable transit system. If you look at places with such systems — Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Washington, to name a few — you will find few if any instances where fares are offered at discounts or waived entirely. Most charge fares based on a window of time to use the system, or on the distance traveled. UTA will likely have to move toward such a model and away from its current practice of charging a flat fee.
The question is: If and when discounts are severed, how many of those who currently ride Trax at a discounted rate will choose to ride less? If it's a large number, there will be significant consequences, including more congested street traffic, greater burdens on parking facilities and an increase in tailpipe emissions. All of it proving that UTA's conundrum affects a sphere much wider than the transit authority itself.
When commuters weigh the value of using public transit over an automobile, they typically crunch the numbers to determine whether a financial benefit might overcome any loss in convenience and flexibility.
As UTA continues to crunch its numbers, the agency needs to find the precise balance between charging fares high enough to pay for existing service, and low enough to not only preserve current ridership, but also recruit new riders to a system that is in everyone's best interest to nurture and expand.