Free fare days

By Jessica Reimer

A great idea whose time (we hope) has come

This legislative session may be a banner year for air quality! The Governor’s unprecedented request for $100 million of the budget surplus to be spent on air quality initiatives invites potential to fund new and creative ways to tackle our air quality problem.

One of those ideas is to provide free public transportation on days leading up to inversions that trap the dirty pollution in our valley.

As you probably know, vehicles are one of the largest emitters in our airshed: Every time you start your car, you contribute to the pollution that builds up during the inversions. (See January CATALYST: “Pollution does not equal Inversion”).

This isn’t necessarily the sole fault of individuals, as Utah’s transportation system is primarily designed for us to get around in our cars. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. The Free Fare Days bill, being run by Representative Joel Briscoe, incentivizes people to ride public transportation. It encourages a behavior change that will decrease driving.

The idea for this bill grew out of one day of free fares that was sponsored in December 2017 by the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), Salt Lake City Council, Salt Lake County and the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR). During that day of free public transit, the UTA system saw a 32% increase in ridership on TRAX and a 66% increase in ridership on Frontrunner (read: decrease in driving), saving the release of three tons of criteria pollutants and 200 tons of greenhouse gases into the air. While bus ridership didn’t increase much on that particular day, there is potential that additional free fare days with more publicity can inspire people to give the bus system a try, too.

This bill would create a fund to help alleviate the fares lost by providing free transit, about $70,000 per weekday ($50,000 on the weekends). The fund would be a public-private partnership with state, municipal, corporate and organizational contributions to fund 15 to 20 days of free public transit per year during the winter inversion season when air quality is at its worst.

The bill would also require data collection on ridership, vehicles on the road, and other general benefit metrics to measure the program’s success.

Finally, it would ask for an amount of money from the state (to be determined, but likely in the $500,000 to $1 million range) to seed the fund for use beginning in mid-to-late 2019.

While subsidizing transit fares may not be the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions, it provides a way to reduce single-driver vehicle trips, which contribute a large portion of our air pollution. Encouraging behavior change is critically needed to reduce overall emissions.

As Utah’s population continues to grow, we need policies and incentives that help to shift the norms. Cars and trucks aren’t going anywhere soon, but we can certainly take better advantage of our public transit system.

For many, combining public transit with electric scooters or bikes to get you that first or last mile, or using rideshare apps when you get stuck, can help alleviate concerns about relying on public transportation to get you around the valley.

With this bill, our elected officials have the opportunity to show they understand that air quality is a collective problem requiring many various solutions. And it provides an incentive for all of us to try incorporating public transportation into our daily routine. Only with intentional and deliberate efforts on everyone’s part—including our elected officials and ourselves—will we chip away at shifting our own behaviors. Free public transportation can help support the community in this effort.

Public support for this bill will be critical to its success! Look for opportunities to make your voice heard throughout the session.


Jessica Reimer is HEAL Utah’s policy associate focusing primarily on air quality and radioactive waste.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2019.