SALT LAKE CITY — A handful of colleges and universities are waiting to hear what the Utah Transit Authority is going to charge this year to continue Ed Pass services for thousands of participating students, faculty and staff.
Increased costs, which are inevitable, will vary by campus and will be decided based on ridership, which is now calculated electronically. It's just not clear whether pass holders or schools will be asked to foot the bill for the difference.
"The Ed Pass as it has traditionally existed is likely going to go away for most schools," said UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter. He said knowing how to deal with increasing demands and decreasing revenues is "a real challenge."
Brigham Young University announced last August that it will no longer subsidize student bus passes, but will provide them at UTA's 25 percent discount. Where they used to cost students, faculty and staff about $120 per year, the Ed Pass will now cost them $56.25 per month.
"I think it is ridiculous, disrespectful to BYU employees and students, unethical due to the impact on traffic and the environment, and will basically mean my raise this next year is a wash," BYU professor Sam Hardy said.
The Provo school cites decreasing participation over the years, including a 21 percent drop in ridership from last year, leaving only 13 percent of students and under 7 percent of employees taking advantage of the pass, as a reason to discontinue the program there.
BYU Vice President Jan Scharman clarified the board of trustee's recent decision, saying the Ed Pass program is not economically sustainable in its current form.
UTA is negotiating contracts with each of the state's schools, and other organizations that use the Ed Pass, individually, but Carpenter said the goal is to get the prices to where discounts are equitable for all riders. As it stands, Utah County subsidizes the service less than taxpayers in Salt Lake County, but gets more in terms of service.
"Our goal is to provide the services that they're paying for," Carpenter said. "We know that students are a vulnerable population, they have limited incomes and so hopefully, we can continue to provide them with a discount and in many cases, subsidize that discount through student fees or whatever method the schools choose to use."
University of Utah has always offered the pass free of charge to students, excepting they pay a small student fee. But all students pay that fee, regardless of whether they use the service or not, which beefs up the school's transportation fund and makes the Ed Pass feasible.
"It is an integral part of our campus master plan," said Alma Allred, director of commuter services at the U. "Part of the success of the program, whether they choose to sign up or not, is that students have access to public transportation."
Without mass transit, the U. would have an even bigger parking problem. When gas prices peak, Allred said about 15,000 students and employees ride UTA's buses and TRAX trains each day.
"We don't want to make it more difficult to take the bus," he said. "If they were to charge the going rate, they wouldn't have any riders. You have to compete with the cost of owning a vehicle because you just can't compete with convenience."
Allred said he's confident the U. will be able to reach a favorable agreement with UTA.
Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University also rely heavily on public transportation, but just like every other school with an ever-tightening budget, both need it to be financially sustainable.
SLCC has come up with a varied cost, on a first-come, first-serve basis. When the $60 per month passes are gone, the school will sell Ed Passes for $200 a semester or by per-month sales.
"Mass transit will continue, buses will still make the rounds. What's at issue here is what portion the student will be asked to pay out of pocket," said UVU spokesman Chris Taylor. He said that while riding the bus can be expensive, "students have to be able to afford it without creating an undue burden on them."
UVU's student government has taken a stand, saying students won't pay more than the $6.88 per semester and $20 activation fee they are already paying for an Ed Pass.
"We want to work it out and we have a great partnership with UTA," Taylor said. "But at the same time, we rely heavily on mass transit."
Carpenter said costs continue to increase for fuel, to pay operators, purchase vehicles and to maintain those vehicles and the money has to come from somewhere.
"Our costs continue to rise and if we subsidize some pass types too heavily, it means we don't have the money to maintain the service and we have to cut service. And we're not just cutting service to the schools, we have to cut service for everybody," he said. "Ultimately, we need to come up with a program that is sustainable for UTA and is sustainable for these universities and colleges."
UTA hopes to offer a 25 percent flat-rate discount to all colleges and universities as it transitions through its various cost structures and tries to meet growing demands throughout its service area. It is a complicated issue, but Carpenter is sure UTA will come up with a solution and be able to charge each rider an "appropriate amount."
"You have a certain amount of revenue available to put buses and trains on the roads and you have to come up with the best way to do that and serve the greatest number of people," he said.