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Tickets please: A look at UTA’s fares

A graph showing the tax funding and revenue of UTA per year. Data provided by UTA.

It’s 4 p.m. on a sunny spring Wednesday at the North Temple FrontRunner station in downtown Salt Lake City. The platform quickly begins to fill with passengers waiting for the next commuter train headed north, toward Ogden, or south, toward Provo. Above the drum of footsteps and babble of speech, the sound of a synthetic beep rings out repeatedly as many of the passengers swipe a transit pass over an electronic sensor. It’s a clear indication that these passengers have paid to ride the train, but many of these passengers suspect that several people are taking advantage of the system.

“It is unethical and a form of stealing. However I imagine it happens a lot because of how easy it is to do,” Jonathan A., who asked to be identified by his first name and last initial, said. He is a working professional who uses the system two or three times per week. “I’m not aware of what they do to enforce payment.”

Zach Myler relies on FrontRunner for his daily commute to work. He has noticed the lack of fare enforcement.

“I’ve never seen anyone asked if they have a ticket or pass on FrontRunner,” Myler said.

Utah Transit Authority operates FrontRunner, and on the surface, their data appears to support the suspicion that many passengers are not paying to ride the train. In 2018 there were a little over 5.08 million FrontRunner passengers. If every passenger had paid the full fare, $2.50, it would have generated approximately $12.7 million in revenue.

The actual fare revenue in 2018 was $7.375 million. This equates to about 58% of passengers paying full fare. But not everyone is required to pay the full fare to ride FrontRunner. Actively enrolled university students in Utah qualify for free or discounted UTA passes, including the UTA Edpass, which allows Weber State University students to ride most transportation services for free.

In an informal survey, 70% of respondents indicated they qualify for a free or reduced pass from UTA. When the 2018 numbers were crunched again, now factoring in 70% of passengers paying a reduced fare of $1.25 and only 30% paying full fare, the estimated revenue would have been about $7.9 million. And the numbers are similar over a five-year span from 2018 to 2022. This indicates that around 90% of passengers are paying at least something to ride the FrontRunner. But that’s where the good financial news reaches the end of the line.
In the same five-year span, UTA records show that fare revenue covers only about 10% of annual operating costs. Tax funding makes up the difference. Even if UTA collected a full fare from every FrontRunner passenger, the revenue would still only cover a fraction of the cost to operate the service.

“It’s hard to justify more enforcement when I think UTA estimates 90% already pay without enforcement,” Nick V., another commuter who asked to keep his last name private said. “Cost of enforcement might exceed the additional revenue captured.”

With taxpayers already covering about 90% of the cost to operate FrontRunner, UTA has explored the possibility of abandoning the attempt to enforce payment and eliminate fares altogether.

“It’s been discussed at various levels at UTA,” Carl Arky, a UTA spokesperson, said.

But he added that this decision wouldn’t be made solely by UTA.

“State and local governments would be heavily involved with any attempt to go to a zero fare system,” Arky said.

In other words, the government would likely have to commit additional tax funding to replace the revenue lost from eliminating ticket sales, but FrontRunner usage could swell as a result.

“UTA has had many zero fare days in the past for all modes of transit in the system,” Arky said. “Everyone rode for free for 10 days during the NBA All-Star extravaganza last year. Ridership has typically gone up significantly on days or weeks the public has been offered zero fares.”

However, some people think the price of a ticket isn’t the only deterrent.

“Inconvenience or not enough schedule flexibility,” Barrett B., who requested that his last initial only be used, said. “They don’t understand how it works and are afraid or overwhelmed by it. I have been riding on and off over the years since 2012. The WiFi was awful back then. UTA has made a lot of improvements, but I think they should do more to clearly communicate how simple and convenient it is.”

Simplicity and convenience got Arky accustomed to using FrontRunner before he joined UTA.

“I used to take the train from Salt Lake to Ogden regularly while working with Weber State athletics,” Arky said. “Get off at Union Station, get on a bus, right up to campus.”

But he concedes that, while the system might work great for many people, it will never be a perfect fit for everyone.

“This winter, I took the train to get up to Snowbasin. On the way back we just missed the train. I was talking to a couple of tourists. They decided 30 minutes was too long so they called an Uber. I waited for the next train,” Arky said.

Still, Natalie Thompson, who uses FrontRunner occasionally to avoid traffic, is optimistic that removing the need to purchase a ticket would be sufficient to cause usage to spike.

“I only ride [FrontRunner] occasionally and I purchase a pass when I ride. I think ridership would increase significantly if fares were eliminated,” Thompson said.

If UTA could secure the additional funding to eliminate fares, the people riding FrontRunner for no charge wouldn’t be the only stakeholders who benefit. Greater ridership and use of public transportation would be the most obvious outcome, but that would be followed by a list of additional advantages.

“Fewer cars on the highways, fewer emissions, cleaner air,” Arky said. “Less wear and tear on our roadways. Potential transportation cost savings for individuals and families. Less congestion on secondary roads.”

He added that the possible consideration of eliminating fares would not be exclusive to commuter rail.

“If this ever were to happen it would, in all likelihood, be enacted system wide and not just on FrontRunner,” Arky said.

Eliminating the need to hear that electronic beep from scanning a pass sounds great to Regan Belko.

“I ride FrontRunner once a week. I’m in school full time and I work part-time. Providing this option for people with no alternative and reducing emissions is something I support,” Belko said.

UTA welcomes patron feedback at

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