A Pass in Every Pocket: Salt Lake City and UTA Encourage Residents to Help Improve Air Quality by Signing Up for New Transit Program

Just in time for inversion season, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Utah Transit Authority General Manager Michael Allegra have announced a partnership offering city residents discounted passes to make riding transit more affordable.

It’s a move that would help improve air quality by minimizing the number of regular car trips.

That’s good news for Wasatch Front air quality, as vehicle emissions account for more than half of the air pollution that gets trapped along the Wasatch Front during our winter inversions. Under the pilot plan, which begins in early 2014 and is modeled after bulk pass programs offered by UTA, Salt Lake City residents will be eligible to purchase one-year transit passes for $360. That translates to $30 a month, giving residents the option to ride UTA buses, TRAX or FrontRunner rather than drive. The city is paying $150,000 to administer the program.

UTA and Salt Lake City are banking on at least 6,000 residents purchasing the passes. But how much of a difference will it make in our air quality? With 6,000 or more participants, the program has the potential to eliminate about 10,290,000 miles per year and an estimated 30 tons of pollutants from the air.

The key to the program, says UTA Senior Media Relations Specialist Remi Barron, is for 6,000 or more Salt Lake City residents to sign up. “We are optimistic the program will work out fine and continue on, but it is a one-year pilot program right now,” he notes. “UTA is interested to see how popular the program is and how the numbers work out. This is all stuff that hasn’t been done before.”

Offering incentivized use of mass transit to improve air quality is a novel idea UTA hopes other cities will be interested in as well. Studies show that by having transit passes in their pockets, residents are more likely to utilize mass transit. According to data from Salt Lake City, residents could break even on their transit investments by replacing car travel with six round trips per month on UTA transit systems. There would be no limit on the number of passes purchased per household, and residents can pay for the passes all at once or in installments of $30 per month, charged to their utility bills. (Ski bus, Park City Connect and paratransit services will be excluded from the pass.)

If the program receives the required support from city residents, it could become a sustainable piece of Salt Lake City’s efforts to improve the air quality. “We hope everyone will jump on board and take advantage of this pass,” Becker said during the announcement last month.

“UTA’s goal is to get a pass in everyone’s pocket,” added Allegra. “This is an innovative approach where a city is investing its resources to make transit passes available to all its residents. If the one-year pilot is successful, UTA hopes to refine and expand the program to other communities.”

EDCUtah President and CEO Jeff Edwards lauds the partnership as another example of Utahns working together. “Poor air quality can be a turn-off for economic development. It also diminishes our quality of life and drives up our health care costs,” he says. “We appreciate Salt Lake City leaders for being innovative in addressing our air quality challenges and making UTA’s transit systems an affordable alternative for city residents.”

Salt Lake Chamber Executive Vice President Marty Carpenter calls the residential transit program a win-win for air quality and city residents. “We’ve made wise investments in our transportation infrastructure, and that’s helped us in a number of ways,” he says. “Innovative programs like this will help more people see the benefit of our investment and help improve our air quality.”

Barron notes that UTA is also holding an open house on Dec. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the North Salt Lake City Hall to get ideas and opinions from Davis County residents on the future of transit between south Davis County and downtown Salt Lake City.

UTA is partnering with Bountiful City, City of North Salt Lake, Salt Lake City, Davis County and the Wasatch Front Regional Council to conduct an Alternatives Analysis (AA) study to better understand current and future transit needs of people living in southern Davis County through the planning horizon of 2040.