Free transit fares on red-burn days may be too costly to consider.

HB298, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, proposed letting commuters ride UTA buses and trains for free on the 50 or so red-burn days that happen each year, and for half-price on days designated yellow burn. The bill never made it to a vote in the House but was scheduled for interim study.

Before those discussions have started, however, Utah Transit Authority officials declared the concept essentially undoable. Mick Crandall, UTA's deputy chief for planning, said costs associated with covering the free rides would be substantial.

"Looking at 51 days of pollution warnings, we came up with about $4 million to cover lost revenue," Crandall said. "An additional $2 million would be required to deploy additional equipment ... and cover added operating expenses."

Crandall said UTA based the estimates on a 20 to 40 percent ridership increase — numbers that reflect what the system has experienced in the past on corporate-sponsored free-ride days.

Other transit systems, however, have successfully implemented similar programs. The agency that inspired Harper's bill, Arlington Transit in Arlington County, Virginia, has been using a free-fare system tied to air pollution alerts with great success for almost a decade.

Kelley MacKinnon is the operations coordinator for Arlington Transit, the agency that provides bus service for about 3,500 daily commuters near Washington, D.C.

"Our program runs from May 1 until the end of September every year," MacKinnon said. "We get about a 10 percent increase in ridership on 'code-red' days."

MacKinnon said the agency tracks the extra riders on the approximately 15 free days and is compensated through federal and local grant money.

"It's about getting people out to use transit and help with air-quality issues," MacKinnon said.

Other systems, such as San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, have also experimented with free fares on bad-air days. While they have claimed success, Crandall said the major difference was that those areas had substantially fewer bad-air days that qualified riders for the free fares.

Instead, Crandall would like to use the savings in other ways.

"Six million dollars is a lot of money," Crandall said. "We think there are better ways to spend it."

Among those better ways, Crandall said, would be to use the money to decrease the emissions output of UTA transit vehicles, which could cost "several thousand dollars" per bus. There are also hybrid transit buses the agency is wanting to purchase.

"Those buses are hundreds of thousands of dollars right now ... but more and more transit systems are considering them and prices will come down," Crandall said.

As for the summer study of the issue, Crandall said UTA is ready to be a part of change.

"We're going into it with the idea that air quality is something we want to improve," Crandall said. "And we're looking for ways we can help."


E-mail: araymond@desnews.com