1 of 17
Ravell Call, Deseret News
A UTA bus carries passengers on State Street in the free fare zone in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Transit Authority's 27-year tradition of offering free bus rides in parts of downtown Salt Lake City will continue.

UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter announced Wednesday that after more than a year of discussion, the free-fare zones for bus and TRAX riders will not be changed.

There will be one minor difference, however, in that riders will be required to pay up front.

"We are going to require everyone to pay when they board," he said.

If a person is traveling only within the free fare, they will need to tell the driver up front, Carpenter said. The paying up front program will begin on Dec. 9.

Carpenter said the free-fare zones will remain for the foreseeable future, meaning the next couple of years. However, he said UTA officials may explore a distance-based fare system in the future, so residents would pay based on how far they are traveling, even if that's within the current free zone.

UTA first approached the Salt Lake City Council about a year ago with its proposal to end the free zone.

In June, UTA told the City Council the free-fare zone costs the agency roughly $194,000 a year in lost bus revenue. The unpopular proposal was met with a backlash of negative comments from residents, some saying it was an attack on poor, elderly, handicapped and working people.

Carpenter said the free fare zone costs the agency a total of about $1 million annually for both buses and TRAX. Besides the lost revenue, UTA also cited safety concerns, particularly on buses, as another concern with the free fare zone.

Bus drivers are sometimes challenged by riders when asked to pay their fares upon exiting the bus after leaving the free zone.

"(Passengers) are not asked to pay until the end of their trip. Everywhere else in our system, you pay at the beginning of your trip," Carpenter explained. "This reverse fare collection method has led to some confrontations between passengers and operators."

Some passengers refuse to pay, creating an "uncomfortable situation for the operator who is trying to do (their) job," he said. A few months ago, an operator was assaulted by an irate passenger who refused to pay his fare, according to Carpenter.

Sometimes passengers may use the transit system's free fare zone to loiter or conduct illicit activity in an effort to avoid law enforcement, he said. All of those issues have forced UTA to make operational changes to ensure the protection and welfare of its workers and passengers.

"That is something we're very concerned about," Carpenter said. "We want our system to be safe and secure."

E-mail: [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam, JasenLee1