SALT LAKE CITY — City Councilman Luke Garrott wants to know why Salt Lake City should consider allowing the Utah Transit Authority to stop providing free bus service downtown.
Garrott, who represents downtown on the council, told UTA officials Tuesday that doing away with the free-fare zone for buses would take away some Salt Lake City residents' only access to transit.
"Getting rid of the free-fare zone downtown, whether it's for buses or trains, will decrease ridership," he said during Tuesday's City Council work session. "People like knowing it is free downtown, that they can hop on it and go."
UTA officials say the transit agency is losing about $100,000 per year from people riding buses downtown for free. Free light-rail service in the free-fare zone is costing UTA as much as $900,000 a year, officials said.
UTA wants to start charging for bus service downtown as soon as August, if the City Council agrees to allow it. The transit agency is not proposing to eliminate free fares downtown for TRAX.
Jerry Benson, UTA's chief operating officer, said the impact of eliminating the free-fare zone for buses would be "relatively insignificant" for residents and other riders.
Garrott strongly disagreed.
Because TRAX travels mostly north-south, aside from the line to the University of Utah, and UTA doesn't offer shuttle service, people rely on buses to access downtown from various ares of the city, he said.
"To say that getting rid of the bus free-fare zone is redundant and we already have a circulator … is not true," Garrott said.
He also pointed out that the free-fare zone was put in place in exchange for Salt Lake City surrendering right of way to UTA for its transit system.
"The origin of this deal is very important," Garrott said. "We are legally bound, before we give it away, to value that right of way."
It was also noted that maintaining or expanding the free-fare zone has been part of transit planning documents and contract agreements between Salt Lake City and UTA dating back to the late 1990s.
Benson said there are roughly 70 contract agreements between UTA and Salt Lake City and that the relationship between the two is "not a transactional one."
"Most of those agreements are of the character of a collaboration in order to create something valuable together," he said. "We would welcome the opportunity to talk with the city about opportunities of doing those kinds of things."
The Downtown Alliance has said it supports doing away with the free-fare zone for buses, calling it a good opportunity to review progress on the Downtown In Motion plan, adopted as Salt Lake City's transportation master plan in November 2008.
"As you consider renegotiating the terms that govern the free-fare zone, we encourage you to work with UTA to implement many of the proposals from that plan that have not been fully realized," Downtown Alliance Executive Director Jason Mathis wrote in a letter to the City Council last month.
Some of the short-term actions in the plan that Mathis suggests the city pursue include requiring additional rail lines downtown by 2015; studying streetcar access to downtown from areas not served by TRAX; building streetcar lines to neighborhoods where high-density development is planned; and exploring the possibility of a dedicated downtown bus shuttle to centers of activity.
Mathis also asks that the city work with UTA to restore direct TRAX service between the intermodal hub and the University of Utah. That route was eliminated by UTA last year, forcing riders to transfer TRAX trains at Courthouse Station to reach the university.
That, too, has been a point of contention for Garrott.
"Over the last four or five years, I've heard a lot of complaints from residents about decreases in UTA service, disappointment about alignments of rail services and about cuts in bus service," he said. "We don't have uninterrupted east-west service in downtown anymore. These are considerations that should be taken seriously."
City Council members said they want to hear from residents before making a decision on the free-fare zone. A public hearing has been tentatively scheduled for June 12.
"We want to make sure people have plenty of notice about a public hearing because this is a significant policy shift," said Soren Simonsen, City Council chairman.